Comments on ‘The Age of Apocalypse’

Comments by Wendell Krossa on “Global Trends of the 2010s #7: The Age of Apocalypse”  (from a link on CCNet:)

Here is my response to Walter Mead’s blog on apocalyptic. I have posted this on his  blog.

Walter Mead appears to accept the possibility of some sort of apocalyptic ending, just not certainty about when.  His tone throughout appears to accommodate the viewpoint of apocalyptic and in so doing he does little to alleviate unfounded fear of the future.  He later affirms global nuclear destruction as the most probable scenario for an apocalyptic outcome.  I cannot accept this argument, because all of the longest term trends of reality and life express the opposite probability to an apocalyptic outcome-things will get better; much better.  Let me add that the most fundamental long-term trends of reality and life (where we have come from and what has actually happened so far- stubborn factual evidence) are our best predictors of the most probable future outcomes.

Note, for instance, climate, which he makes reference to.  Over the long history of climate on earth, CO2 levels have been as high as 7000 ppm (2000ppm plus, as recently as during the Jurassic/Cretaceous Periods) and no runaway greenhouse effect occurred.  In fact, higher levels of CO2 benefitted: plant growth and life flourished, especially during much warmer periods  than today (warm periods do not always coincide with higher atmospheric CO2 levels). In all the long history of endless climate change, and much more rapid and severe past climate changes, there was never any apocalyptic outcome for life (see Ian Plimer’s Heaven and Earth for extensive paleo-climate detail, for instance, p.165, 193).  But let me take issue with Mead’s most probable apocalyptic scenario: nuclear war.  He says, “The technological explosion through which we are living makes the end of the world increasingly probable from an  intellectual point of view (nuclear proliferation, for example, makes nuclear war more likely)…Global destruction by nuclear weapons is the most probable Faustian scenario…”.  While the use of nuclear weapons by rogue states or terrorist groups  remains probable and horrific to envision, this will not result in “global destruction” or “the end of the world”.  There is a powerful opposing trend to such violence and it involves the emergence and maturing of human (humane) consciousness.

The consequence of this emerging/maturing consciousness has been a significant decrease in violence over human history, with war becoming an ever-lessening threat to life.  Note for instance, Stephen Pinker’s research on this in The Better Angels Of Our Nature, or James Payne’s History of Force.  Luke Mitchell (A Run On Terror  http://harpers.org/archive/2004/03/0079957d ) also noted that a nuclear attack on a US city by terrorists could kill from 10,000 to 250,000 people and be a singular horror. But, he adds, the country would go on as it did after the influenza epidemic of 1918 (600,000  deaths) or during the AIDs epidemic (500,000 deaths and counting). It would not be the end of the US, just as nuclear war would not be the end of life. We don’t ever want to diminish the horror of the catastrophes throughout history that devastate millions of lives. But the trend of violence and  war  to lessen over time nonetheless continues.  And remarkably so.  The evidence points to the fact that there will be no global destruction or end of the world. Not even from nuclear war.  Remember, the tendency of alarmists to exaggerate damaging impacts has been exposed repeatedly in bird flu, Gulf oil spill, Y2K, global warming, and other panics.

To understand the highest probabilities of where life is headed and what  the most likely outcome will be for life, one needs to consider the three longest and most prominent trends of reality and life.  These core trends provide the longest and most comprehensive data base or context by which  to evaluate all other sub-trends/events.  I refer to the three great  emergences of (1) material reality (the universe, its history and development), (2)  the history and development of biological life, and (3) the history and  progress of human civilization.  All three emergences and their subsequent trajectories have shown endless improvement, advance, development, or progress toward something better and specifically in the cases of life and civilization, progress toward something more humane.  Not even the worst natural catastrophes, accidents, setbacks, downturns, or intentional violence along the way have halted  this endless trajectory of progress evident in these three fundamental emergences.

Once again, what has already happened consistently over the  past is the best indicator of future direction.  With regard to the development of the cosmos, minds oriented to an apocalyptic perspective have created narratives of a universe dominated by  a pessimistic view of the Second Law and the tendencies toward decay, disorganization, decline and ultimate collapse and ending. Others have argued that this pessimistic view arises from taking the Second Law beyond its proper arena of application.  This apocalyptic view of the universe downplays the more fundamental creative trend of progressive development  in the cosmos.  So legitimate challenges have been raised against Second Law prominence and pessimism.  It is argued that more fundamental creative laws have given us the increasingly organized and complex reality of today (see for instance, Ilya Prigogine’s theories http://www.marxist.com/science-old/arrowoftime.html ).

With regard to the evidence that life has progressed, I would offer Edward O. Wilson’s summary, “The overall average across the history of life has moved from the simple and few to the more complex and numerous. During the past billion years, animal as a whole have evolved upward…in each case farther from the non-living state than their simpler antecedents did.  Progress, then, is a property of the evolution of life as a whole by  almost any conceivable intuitive standard…” (The Evolution-Creation Struggle, p.234). This progress in biological complexity and development reached an apex/pinnacle in the emergence of the modern human brain and the wonder of consciousness.  Human consciousness then set in motion the epitome of all  the fundamental trends of progress, the grand exodus of humanity out from animal existence and toward a truly human culture and existence.  Human history is the story of a species escaping from slavery to base animal drives (retaliation, domination, small band exclusion) and discovering the  freedom to become authentically human.  It is a story defined by new human values such as freedom, compassion, inclusion, generosity, creativity, personal authority and responsibility, and all that encompasses being truly human.  We see the fruit of this grand exodus today in our civilization with its ongoing trends toward decreasing violence, improving standards of living  for all people (what the World Bank refers to as the ongoing “dramatic decline in poverty”), the spread of basic human rights and freedoms, and much more.

This toothless monster of apocalyptic has been a darkening curse on human consciousness for too much of our history.  It absolutely distorts the true state of life and altogether misses its rising trajectory of progress.  Apocalyptic has long been employed to argue that life has declined from a more pristine past and has been heading downward toward something worse, toward some calamitous ending.  The resulting alarmist hysteria and panic produced by apocalyptic mythology has far too much impact on public policy and thereby hinders human progress (note, for example, the GM foods ban, and general environmental obstructionism).  Apocalyptic terrorizes public consciousness and prevents the human spirit from experiencing the full liberation of an unlimited future.

Arthur Herman (The Idea of Decline in Western History) has given us a thorough history of modern apocalyptic thought, which he calls “cultural pessimism” (declinism, degeneration theory). He says that this pessimism  has come to dominate contemporary thought even though it is directly contradicted by reality.  It has resulted in the climate of fatalism, despair, self-doubt, resignation, and withdrawal so prominent today. He  says that cultural pessimism or theories of declinism present the world and  life as trapped in a process of deterioration, exhaustion and inevitable collapse. It also betrays a fundamental anti-human stance that blames a corrupted and degenerating humanity for the decline of life.  This apocalyptic viewpoint then dangerously demands a Salvationist response.  There must be a wholesale destruction, a violent purging of the present decaying order, to be replaced by a new utopian order.

I would challenge anyone to put up any clear evidence that the three basic trends of reality and life, or any of the long-term sub-trends of life,  show any evidence of some overall long-term decline or apocalyptic outcome.  There is none.  That is why the history of apocalyptic has been correctly summarized in the aphorism- “Apocalyptic has a 100% failure rate”.   The long term evidence points clearly in the opposite direction to apocalyptic outcomes.

So among all the dreams that we hold for a better future, let’s be sure  that we include the dream of ridding human consciousness of the debilitating darkness of apocalyptic mythology.

In my final submission to Benny I added this paragraph after the comments on the three fundamental trends of reality:  “These mega-trends are the most fundamental trends shaping our reality. They all exhibit a fundamental progression toward things more organized, more developed, and more advanced. In a word or four, progression toward something better”

This is my Jesus trick – to point to something in physical reality, like sun and rain given to all, or flowers and grass being clothed in beauty, and to infer from that physical evidence that there is generosity and goodness behind all.  Let the pennies drop where they will.