So, my sixteen-year-old is off doing “good deeds” to celebrate Earth Day. A Wall Street Journal editorial today concludes with one of those Churchill aphorisms:
So next time someone tells you that climate change is more dangerous than terrorism, bear in mind . . . Churchill once said: “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”
Since 1970, carbon monoxide emissions in the U.S. are down 55%, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Particulate emissions are down nearly 80%, and sulfur dioxide emissions have been reduced by half. Lead emissions have declined more than 98%. All of this has been accomplished despite a doubling of the number of cars on the road and a near-tripling of the number of miles driven, according to Steven Hayward of the Pacific Research Institute.
Of course, these percentages are not unlike those the Green Revolution, headed by scientists like Borlaug, produced. As life gets better, we have more time to navel gaze.
Side note: I’m always struck by the despair & nihilism of 20th century lit as opposed to, say, 17th century. Then, well, things were a lot tougher – a mother could expect to see a real percentage of her children die before her, food shortages, great pain, fear were a part of life in ways we can not understand. Perhaps good times free our minds to think, but, being human, we spend those thoughts hypothesizing problems. Probably that’s a pretty good adaptation technique – if we didn’t worry we might lose our problem-solving skills. But perhaps we’ve gotten soft: it’s a lot easier to worry about the problems Gore hypothesizes than, well, the old big ones: like we are going to sin & die. And like why do some of us think our culture is worth neither defending nor reproducing? Or, even ones more specific & timely – we sense Gore’s comments are overblown; we are less sure those coming out of Iran are. Therefore, scaring ourselves with Gore’s predictions is more comfortable than meditating on Ahmadinejad’s.
10 thoughts on “Earth Day”
The despair and nihilism of modern literature is the result of the failed bargain made by the intellectuals in the late 19th century. They agreed to support radical anti-bourgoise politics in exchange for a cultural monopoly. The horrors of the 20th century are properly laid at their doorstep, but the catastophe turned their words into ashes in their mouths.
Depends on the 20th Century lit we’re talking about I suspect. Most of the mainstream crud is as nihilistic as you say but I’d claim that the genres such as mysteries, SF, Fantasy, and various pulp stories tended to be optimistic at base. Some genres moreso than others of course. The fact that Fantasy tends to be less prone to despair than the more dystopic SF stories may be a strong reason that SF was losing readers to Fantasy for a while.
But for why mainstream literature itself has become so nihilistic and why there are people who think our culture is no longer worth defending to begin with? I would argue that this is what happens anytime a society allows itself to become *too* detached from religion and tradition. Think Kipling’s “The gods of the Copybook Headings” and you have the idea.
Note for example that most such people as you describe tend to be very militant atheists and while they do belong to a political cult that promises Pie In The Dirt Real Soon Now if they can only get their utopia going I would say it also tends to be true that atheism itself promotes this sort of alienation since those who can’t hope for an Afterlife must either seek their paradise on Earth if they would not despair and in the longterm such a search is doomed in the longterm.
Now against this it might be argued that the 4 Christian pacifists who were recently rescued are surely as much carriers of nihilism as any of the Comrades but, admitting that I have not yet bother to acquant myself with what they were like and so am speaking only from speculation, I would suspect that in some regards theirs is not so much a case of nihilism so much as an excess of optimism concerning human nature which admittedly is sometimes every bit as fatal. Quakers (assuming that this was their sect or something not unlike) might be regarded as the exception that tests the rule that in a healthy culture religion and society tend to be mutually supporting and that a culture where this ceases to be the case must expect to suffer a decline in health. Of course, the reverse would be true as well and this would not be the first time that such declines have reversed. Perhaps we may yet see the entire 20th Century written off as “The Crazy Years”. ^_~
Things *are* pretty tough in modern society. We don’t face the same perils — famine, high infant mortality, and so forth — but we face equally dangerous perils like Islamofascists with guns.
The difference between now and then: back then, everybody knew the real perils when they saw them — everyone knew what a food shortage was like and everyone cared about not having one. But now, people sometimes miss the real perils in favor of fake perils they can blame on the opposite political party. Witness the people afeared of Bush instituting “theocracy” yet arguing we should leave the mad Mullahs alone!
Modern “perils” are like the bogeyman. Radiation, pollution, pandemics, you can’t SEE them. So the right-brain part of us searches for the new religion to save us from these evils.
My prime example is the search for “pure” water. For a compendium of various water peddlers, see:
Chesterton was right!
Lotharbot wrote “Things *are* pretty tough in modern society” but we don’t have as much “famine, high infant mortality, and so forth — but we face equally dangerous perils like Islamofascists with guns.”
My feeling is that we have far less dangerous perils, on a daily and personal, percapita, basis. We perceive more dangers (via modern media) and internalize more danger than there is. And, as Ginny pointed out, we have “more time to stare at our navel”.
I think there is maybe a threshold effect in security…past a certain point, it becomes like an addictive drug, and the more of it someone has, the more someone wants–indeed, the more he *demands*.
A. E. Housman thought that the amount of worrying among humans tends to be fairly constant. Here’s part of a letter he wrote in 1900 (the rest is here):
“When man gets rid of a great trouble he is easier for a little while, but not for long; Nature instantly sets to work to weaken his power of sustaining trouble, and very soon seven pounds is as heavy as fourteen pounds used to be. Last Easter Monday a young woman threw herself into the Lea because her dress looked so shabby amongst the holiday crowd: in other times and countries women have been ravished by half-a-dozen dragoons and taken it less to heart. It looks to me as if the state of mankind always had been and always would be a state of just tolerable discomfort.”
Interesting related post I stumbled on today at the Futurist: The Best of Times.
Thanks to all the commenters – you all have been thoughtful. Also thanks for The Futurist link. One of the commenters there notes why some might prefer a medieval life (whose charms we might want to keep in mind since it appears to be the goal of our opponents.)
Another comment refers to a Cato study (pdf) which is full of charts that give real perspective on 25 trends of the last century – life expectancy, death in births of mother & child, deaths from a variety of diseases, productivity, etc. In some the drama was the first half of the century, some second half & some last quarter. Table 1 summarizes the “25 Wonderful Trends of the Twentieth Century.”
By the way, Shannon pointed to such trends in his piece last June, Defining Wealth.
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