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Ideology of Catastrophe

On the plane a few weeks ago I read an opinion piece that begged for this critique. The Ideology of Catastrophe (Wall Street Journal, 10 April, 2012) was written by Pascal Bruckner, who fancies himself a philosopher. He is certainly not a social or physical scientist.

Cartoon: Environmentalists carry signs warning of various catastrophesHis piece attempts to discredit those who warn our civilization of dangers ahead. I’m not sure why, but a good many folks do feel a compulsion to flee the bad news. I’ve come to accept that, and I try not to condemn people just because they can’t handle the truth. But it does get my dander up when such Pollyannas try to drag the rest of civilization down that ignorant path with them. I’m not saying there isn’t a place in the world for optimism and good news. I’m just saying we absolutely must also be realistic and not ignore warning signs.

Bruckner clearly doesn’t agree. Fortunately, the case he makes is extremely weak. He has a problem with people who spread fear “of progress, science, demographics, global warming, technology, food.”

“Man has committed the sin of pride; he has destroyed his habitat and ravaged the planet….”

                        – fictitious Professor Philippulus, the nemesis of this WSJ op-ed

Bruckner writes that his point is not to minimize our dangers, but then he proceeds to spend the entire piece trying to do just that. His method is quite puzzling. His entire case is built on a series of unconvincing character assassinations. I suppose they are good enough, if Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal reaches the same audience that laps up the shallow, growth-boosting slant of his Fox News and Fox Business News networks. But Murdoch has many growth-boosting mouthpieces who could have done a more skillful job of misleading the readers.

Bruckner gives us a list of archetypes who are not to be believed: leftist intellectuals, environmentalists, preachers and propagandists. He even throws in astrophysicists, authors, journalists, politicians and scientists for good measure. Why are their warnings to be ignored? Simply because. It is apocalyptic, therefore it is false. He doesn’t bother to offer any actual facts to refute what he accuses these blasphemers of saying. The fact that they said it is proof enough, for the Murdoch crowd, that their warnings have no basis in fact.

If the press reports on global warming, according to Bruckner, well of course people will be haunted by these concerns. And because they are haunted by these concerns, opinion polls will pick this up, and that will be reported. That will create more fear. Therefore it is bad. Stop reporting on global warming (hasn’t Murdoch already done that, other than disparaging the scientists?).

Bruckner thinks it’s made all the worse when the bad news is tempered with a “slim ray of hope.” Apparently, if you warn the public of a problem, and then offer a solution, you are not to be believed.

inconvenient_truth_ver2-202x300 Amusingly, he attempts to rip Al Gore for his movie, An Inconvenient Truth. I’ll grant you, both environmentalists and growth pushers have taken part in this pastime, but our Wall Street Journal philosopher comes at it from an angle that both tickles and ticks me off. To do it justice, I must quote prolifically here:

“Here are the means that the former vice president, like most environmentalists, proposes to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions: using low energy light bulbs; driving less; checking your tire pressure; recycling; rejecting unnecessary packaging; adjusting your thermostat; planting a tree; and turning off electrical appliances.”

Here Pascal gets very tricky:  “…let’s be clear: A cosmic calamity is not averted by checking tire pressure or sorting garbage.” Therefore, Gore is full of baloney. As I mentioned, many environmentalists have taken Gore to task for offering a list of lightweight solutions for a heavyweight problem. I count myself among them. But I would love to see 7 billion people adopting these practices. I call that a start. And I don’t think Gore’s setting the bar a little low disproves the theory of man-made climate change, as Pascal would have us believe.

Next, Bruckner really strays into hyper-wackiness, suggesting there is so much doomsaying that we have all come to accept it:  “…making our eventual disappearance part of our everyday routine.” I would argue we’ve come to ignore it, not accept it. He goes on to write, “We begin to suspect that the numberless Cassandras who prophesy all around us do not intend to warn us so much as to condemn us.” It really chaps my hide when critics of the sustainability movement presuppose what is in our hearts and minds. He accuses us of becoming “intoxicated with his (our) own words.” Worse is this assumption and accusation: “Catastrophe is not their fear but their joy.”

Where the hell does he get off?

Even if all his assumptions were true, that would not prove the warnings of calamity from overshoot false. I should be astonished the Wall Street Journal would publish such a poorly reasoned load of crap. I’m not, however, since the Wall Street Journal is part of the Rupert Murdoch growth-pushing and profiteering empire.

Dave Gardner

Dave Gardner is the director of the new documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, which uncovers the cultural forces that keep us pursuing growth in the face of overwhelming evidence we’ve outgrown the planet.

If you find this information at all compelling, if you’re concerned about the prospects for a civilization hell-bent to grow forever on a finite planet, please take the Think Small Pledge and encourage your friends, family and colleagues to do so. Thank you.

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