The Age of Catastrophic Thinking

By Benjamin Kerstein

“Probably,” Norman Mailer wrote in 1957, “we will never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years.” Today, however, we have something like an answer: We are living in an age of catastrophic thinking. Our social and cultural discourse on any number of subjects—the environment, the economy, public health, technology—is defined by a vocabulary and a worldview that can only be described as apocalyptic. The world, we are constantly told, is in a state of mortal crisis, and unless we act fast enough to stop it, we are all facing disaster and oblivion. Everything, it seems, is swiftly accelerating toward a terrible end.
While catastrophic thinking has become ubiquitous on any number of issues, it is nowhere more apparent than on the subject of the environment, especially the topic of global warming. Of course, this appears most explicitly among the various groups specifically dedicated to the cause of environmentalism, but the sentiment has already become a worldwide phenomenon. Perhaps its most famous exponent, former United States vice president Al Gore, used explicitly apocalyptic language to describe the problem in his Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth.
You see that pale, blue dot? That’s us. Everything that has ever happened in all of human history has happened on that pixel. All the triumphs and all the tragedies, all the wars, all the famines, all the major advances… it’s our only home. And that is what is at stake, our ability to live on planet Earth, to have a future as a civilization…. It is our time to rise again to secure our future…. It takes time to connect the dots, I know that. But I also know that there can be a day of reckoning when you wish you had connected the dots more quickly.
Global warming, however, is only the most popular vehicle for prophecies of environmental disaster. Overpopulation, we are told, will soon cause unprecedented starvation, war, crime, and mass extinctions. And chemical pollution, for its part, is said to affect the hormonal makeup of our bodies, resulting in the “feminization” of the species, so that sooner or later we will produce only female offspring, and the human race will lose its capacity to reproduce.
The current economic crisis has also given rise to a whole new genre of anxiety. In September 2008, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan set the tone by telling ABC News, “Let’s recognize that this is a once-in-a-half-century, probably once-in-a-century type of event…. There’s no question that this is in the process of outstripping anything I’ve seen.” In February 2009, the Washington Post informed its readers,
The daily White House intelligence report that catalogs the top security threats to the nation has a grim new addition, reflecting the realities of the age: a daily update on the global financial crisis and its cascading effects on the stability of countries through the world…. The new director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, told a Senate panel this month that economic woes have largely replaced terrorism as the country’s no. 1 security challenge.
In January 2009, the Guardian reported, “Europe’s time of troubles is gathering depth and scale. Governments are trembling. Revolt is in the air.” Economists who had been marginalized for decades due to their predictions of an economic Judgment Day were suddenly in demand, such as dissident economist Ravi Batra of Southern Methodist University, who told the Fort Worth Weekly in December 2008: “We are on the verge of a social revolution—it’s already started [with Obama’s election].” The same month, he told Watermark Financial, “August 2007 was the start of a long period of global economic turmoil. Now that the turmoil is here for everyone to see, my worst fears are confirmed. An economic collapse is upon us…. We will soon see a revolution and then, twenty to forty years from now, economic democracy and the end of monopoly capitalism.”
Recently, the catastrophe du jour has been the swine flu pandemic, which has elicited outbursts of the most extravagant rhetoric from official circles. After the initial outbreak, Dr. Margaret Chan, the World Health Organization’s director-general, announced, “Above all this is an opportunity for global solidarity as we look for responses and solutions that benefit all countries, all of humanity. After all, it really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic.” Seemingly taking its cue from Dr. Chan, the May 2, 2009 cover of the Economist featured a cartoon of the grim reaper—complete with bloody scythe—wearing a surgical mask and leafing through a world atlas. The headline above read, “The Pandemic Threat.”
These various examples of apocalyptic anxiety may at first seem unrelated. In fact, they are remarkably similar. All of them predict a coming global disaster; all of them use ominous rhetoric and imagery to give weight to their prognostications; and all of them claim that mankind has only a very short time left to take action in order to prevent the cataclysm they are sure is coming. In light of this, one cannot help but wonder how and why catastrophic thinking has become such a prevalent feature of our day and age—and what effect this new zeitgeist may have on our lives.

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