Lenny Bruce is Not Afraid

Our new issue, “Earth, Wind, & Fire,” is out now. Check out the table of contents and subscribe today!

We are far too wise to fall for any utopian dreaming, but instead we have fallen prey to any number of dystopian nightmares,” James Heartfield writes in his Winter 2011 Jacobin essay “The End of the World.” He worries we have succumbed to delusions of devastation, and that we are “slaves to histrionic fears”. He reels of a list of our supposed mass neuroses: peak oil, genetically modified food scares, the collapse of capitalism in the wake of the Great Recession — and global warming. Most of Heartfield’s examples, save the last, are good examples of exaggerated terrors that periodically grip certain segments of the population. But his overall concern is baseless: Apocalyptic rhetoric is not the defining characteristic of our age, and if Heartfield wants a utopian political project he should check in with the movement to combat climate change.

Today’s policymakers, advocacy groups, and media figures are no more inclined to indulge in disaster divining than their historical precursors, and we are not markedly more susceptible to their efforts than previous generations were. It isn’t as though we are being seduced en masse into Armageddon worshipping death cults, or something. (Somebody email me if death cult membership does rise dramatically. I bet I could score a Pulitzer off that story.)

Heartfield trots out a series of straw men to support his theory. But how many people are really kept up at night worrying about peak oil? Beyond the back-to-nature crowd, where is the large and politically relevant constituency unnerved by genetically modified foodstuffs? Only a wistful core of old Marxists thought the Great Recession marked the collapse of capitalism. With some major exceptions (Glenn Beck’s, diminished, but still disturbingly vast, audience springs to mind) most people recognize that these aren’t the end times. Unfortunately, in an example I’ll return to later, when regarding one instance where apocalypse-mongering is justified — global warming — our generation is not reacting with the urgency the moment requires.

Fretting over an imagined blight of Armageddon-related political nightmares simply isn’t worth it. Such hyperbole isn’t a sign of the times, it’s just a standard rhetorical tactic, like ginned up activists using warlike political language, or elected officials endlessly promoting their love of country. Heartfield’s piece itself is studded with examples of people prophesying doom decades, even centuries ago: Ellen White’s awkwardly specific premonition of The End, Mother Shipton’s mystical musings, King Louis XV self-centered delusions, Ronald Reagan’s well-documented obsession with the Day of Judgment. Further examples are practically limitless: Millennialism and the ever-postponed apocalypse has been a part of Christianity since before the collapse of the Roman Empire. Michael Wigglesworth’s The Day of Doom was a bestseller among the American Puritans. And let us not forget that most European socialist parties wasted much of their pre-war energy and influence waiting for the “inevitable” collapse of capitalism (a decision that had far more significant political consequences than most of the contemporaneous examples Heartfield cites).

Apocalyptic predictions are certainly attention grabbing and a great way to make headlines. I’m far more likely to read an article that screams “Dr. Doom predicts Global Collapse” than, say, “Mr. Man Estimates Possible Negative Externalities”. Sometimes apocalyptic rhetoric is even politically expedient. The HIV/AIDS example Heartfield uses in his essay is an excellent example of this. While a heterosexual pandemic may have never materialized (in White America or Western Europe), the fear that it would universalized the threat, which was particularly useful in that many of the most dramatically affected groups were effectively marginalized minorities, with little social power. Would the public school debate currently obsessing our political elites have received as much attention if those same elites didn’t buy into the popular myth that the American public school system is in terminal decline? (The real crisis is mostly concentrated in urban schools with majority poor black or Latino populations: Again demographic groups that are quite weak on the national scene.)

And then there are the rare issues that actually warrant apocalyptic rhetoric. Can anyone doubt that the peace and anti-nuclear movements of the Cold War era were anything less than justified in their fears of atomic holocaust? Today, the threat of global warming is just as serious, despite Heartfield’s dismissals. “As worried as we are today about global warming, forty years ago people were worried about global cooling,” he writes. That’s kind of true, but the devil is in the details and in a sentence that vague the details are too easily cloaked. Concern over global cooling in the 1970s sputtered out after a couple books, a few attention grabbing mainstream media stories, and a smattering of speculation in the scientific community. It all but vanished after a few years, much like the over-dramatized fears of avian flu that Heartfield rightly derides.

Today’s fears over rising global temperatures, however, have been sustained by an almost universal scientific consensus. Every national academy, scientific institution, military command, and major political party (with one elephantine exception) in the developed world agrees that global warming is happening, and it will get worse if emissions levels are left unchecked. All the recent science indicates that this is exactly right. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently announced that 2010 tied with 2005 for warmest year on record. Scientists report, as of late January 2011, that the warm temperatures in the northern Atlantic are unprecedented in recorded history. The Center for American Progress’s Dan Weiss notes “There have been more hurricane disaster declarations in recent years. From 1954–1997, there was only one year — 1985 — with more than ten hurricane disaster declarations. There are five such years from 1998–2008.” Insured losses from catastrophe have dramatically spiked as well, from $3 billion in 1980 (close to $8 billion in 2005 dollars) to over $70 billion in 2005. Weiss ties both of these disquieting facts to the increasingly erratic and extreme weather patterns brought on by global warming.

Heartfield calls out certain scientists for their exact predictions of when we will reach the point of no return. “But still, here we are, and the world has not come to an end,” he smirks. Yes, but these scientists are not saying we’ll all die in a fireball come 2016. They are saying that there are certain levels of carbon in the atmosphere beyond which will bring inestimable damage on the heads of future generations and dramatic changes to human-sustaining living environments around the world. (The emerging nations of the Global South are likely to bear the brunt of climate change but, again, promoting an apocalyptic understanding helps universalize the danger.)

Indeed, if Heartfield is seriously nostalgic for the utopian political projects of the past, he need look no further than the efforts of climate hawks to revolutionize and moderate our energy usage, in the teeth of deeply entrenched and fiercely reactionary opposition. There is certainly a debate to be had about whether the apocalyptic warnings that climate hawks often use is an effective way to rally support for the cause. But there is little doubt that, in this instance, such rhetoric is completely legitimate.