June 24, 2010
Mickey Foley: The Doomer's Curse

Mickey Foley takes a look at the underlying motivations of people who predict collapse of society as a result of Peak Oil, Anthropogenic Global Warming, or other causes. Foley sees Doomers motivated by an underlying desire to lower the status of others in order to boost their own relative status.

The Doomer is motivated by much more than a perverse sense of altruism. He mainly desires to see everyone brought down to his level. His fondest wish is for everyone to be as emotionally crippled as he is, and, if they could also be paralyzed fiscally, that would be great too. The argument for the necessity of disaster is merely an excuse for his vindictive fantasies. This is the Doomer's Curse: to wallow in despair, to sneer at the happiness of others, to revel in schadenfreude and to believe that he has humanity's best interests at heart. The Doomer honestly thinks that a universal depression (in the emotional sense) would lay the foundation for a better world, but this belief is rooted in his own selfishness, not in a rational socioeconomic analysis.

Unfortunately I think Foley gets this exactly right. I see doomerism as a product of the psychological impact of technological advance and rising living standards on perceived status. Humans have a huge instinctive need for higher status. At the same time, industrialization lowers relative status. How? Industrialization puts us into bigger status hierarchies. The bigger the hierarchy the fewer who will feel they are at or near the top.

Look at pre-train, pre-car, pre-telegraph, pre-TV society. The number of people that could be above you in a status hierarchy was orders of magnitude smaller. Why? Status hierarchies were small because the daily experience of humans was very local and involved only small numbers of other people. Therefore a much larger fraction of the total society was at the top of status hierarchies.

The development of faster means to communicate and to move around people and goods set the stage for the development of much bigger status hierarchies. For example, look at chain stores. Where there used to be many independent stores, each with one owner in charge (at the top of the hierarchy) we now have huge chain stores and the store manager has many people above him at distant corporate offices.

The bigger the status hierarchy the larger the fraction of the population who are many levels below the top. This loss of status is a breeding ground for fantasies about a simpler society without billionaires and huge mansions of the super wealthy.

The Doomer wants this world to end, because in this world he is a failure. He has failed to achieve his goals personally and/or professionally, but he lacks the maturity to take responsibility for his failure. He blames the rules of this world for his defeat, to the point of judging this world irredeemably corrupt. This belief makes a virtue of his failure, for only the corrupt could succeed in such a world. His moral integrity precludes his success in this den of iniquity. With a better perspective, he could see that it's not the world's corruption that condemns him to failure, but rather his failure that leads him to condemn the world. Therefore, instead of taking steps to improve his chances of success, he throws up his hands, picks up the remote (or the mouse) and eagerly awaits the end of the world that (he believes) is dead set against him.

Unfortunately discussions of real serious problems (e.g. the need to go to greater extremes to get what oil remains) get hijacked by disaster fantasists. There are certainly some nasty worst cases for Peak Oil. But the total collapse of society to a level that takes us back to 18th century living standards combined with a massive die-off of a large fraction of the populations of industrialized countries is very unlikely to come as a consequence of Peak Oil. Still, Peak Oil poses serious problems for us as do some other developments such as depletion of ocean fisheries, pollution, population growth, and depletion of some minerals.

I expect the problem with doomerism to grow as long as the world continues to integrate to one big massive market with huge economies of scale. The deeper the hierarchies of status and dominance the stronger the unfulfilled need for higher status and less feeling of being dominated.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 June 24 05:57 PM  Society Status Hierarchies

Parker Bohn said at June 27, 2010 1:02 AM:

We are finding that many personality traits can be traced to genetics.
For instance:

I would not be surprised if 'Doomerism' also has a strong genetic component.

I also think that, so long as this trait is relatively rare, it can actually be a boon to society as a whole.

Suppose we drew a bell-curve representing how concerned each member of society is about a given threat.
It would seem normal to me for people on the far right tail to over-react to that threat.
I would be afraid to face a threat where even the most concerned people under-estimate it!

Avenist said at June 27, 2010 3:40 AM:

I think that such behavior is related to hunter-gatherer morality. They were egalitarian and shamed those that flaunted having greater abilities. Liberals emphasize harm and fairness more than the other moral spheres.

I do like your explanation through status and ever-larger hierarchies. Excellent. Shame of the powerful by the powerless does not work so they resort to rationalizing through fantasies.

Of course the conservatives have their own baggage.

Clarium said at June 27, 2010 4:48 AM:

What about undeveloped countries? What do you forecast the likelyhood a massive dieoff of the Earth's population?

Randall Parker said at June 27, 2010 9:09 AM:

Parker Bohn,

My problem with the trait is that new threats and problems get so exaggerated that they are then dismissed by the public at large: All of civilization is going to collapse? There's nothing we can do about it except build mountain redoubts? Okay then. Let's move on and think about something else.

That is a good paper from Plos One. Here's the abstract:

Individuals vary in their willingness to take financial risks. Here we show that variants of two genes that regulate dopamine and serotonin neurotransmission and have been previously linked to emotional behavior, anxiety and addiction (5-HTTLPR and DRD4) are significant determinants of risk taking in investment decisions. We find that the 5-HTTLPR s/s allele carriers take 28% less risk than those carrying the s/l or l/l alleles of the gene. DRD4 7-repeat allele carriers take 25% more risk than individuals without the 7-repeat allele. These findings contribute to the emerging literature on the genetic determinants of economic behavior.
Anonymous said at June 27, 2010 10:40 AM:

I'm not a doomer (30yrs old) -- and I really don't really feel like i'm going to be seeing total resource collapse within my lifetime, but I do wonder what is going to replace the oil that is basically every product we use. (Oil may be getting short 50+ years into the future).

not anon or anonymous said at June 27, 2010 11:09 AM:

I do wonder what is going to replace the oil that is basically every product we use.

That use of oil is a small fraction of the oil we use for energy. Small quantities of oil can be easily synthesized from various feedstocks or extracted from otherwise unproductive fields.

Chris T said at June 27, 2010 11:13 AM:

I can certainly attest to the draw of doomerism while depressed (although not peak oil). It's a weird aphrodisiac, not unlike causing physical pain to alleviate emotional pain.

"My problem with the trait is that new threats and problems get so exaggerated that they are then dismissed by the public at large: All of civilization is going to collapse? There's nothing we can do about it except build mountain redoubts?"

Global warming is suffering from this. Almost every bad thing is trumpeted to be a result of or exasperated by global warming. After a while people become numb to it and begin to think even reasonable analysis is crap.

David said at June 27, 2010 5:37 PM:

It is a mistake to skip the process of evaluating a group's claim in favor of simply determining its motivation for holding a particular belief. In particular, it is a mistake to lump the Peak Oil doomers in with the AGW doomers. Instead, look at their predictive track records. The peak oil'ers, for instance, predicted the US would hit it's peak in the 1970s, which it did, and that it would peak globally in the 2000-2020 period. Many observers believe that we're at peak, and have been since around 2005. Should the global production of oil rise upwards consistently, say breaking 90 million barrels per day consistently for some time, their theory would have to be revised. Try getting that kind of falsifiability out of the AGW types. Instead, for them, anything, be it a particularly cold winter, or a hot summer is explainable under their 'theory'---thereby explaining nothing by purporting to explain everything.

Randall Parker said at June 27, 2010 6:00 PM:


I happen to believe we are very close to world peak oil production. So my problem with the Peak Oil doomsters isn't that they think oil production is near peak. My problem with them is that most doomsterish among them argue that the electric grid will collapse, there'll be a massive die-off in industrialized countries, and long distance trade will end. There's a faction of doomsters arguing that the Peak Oil aware should all move out to the country and take up low tech farming.

I find this position very unlikely for a really basic reason: We had transcontinental and international trade long before we had cars powered by oil. We get lots of energy from sources that won't go away when oil production starts to decline. We have lots of ways to shift toward ways of doing things with less oil.

I think Peak Oil could cause an extended economic depression. It all depends on how fast substitutes can be developed for some of the uses of oil and what the substitutes cost. But an economic depression is far short of a total collapse of industrial society. If our living standards fell to a quarter of today's levels we'd still be far above the average living standard in China today. I'm having a hard time picturing how Peak Oil could even cause that big of a fall.

Tom Bri said at June 28, 2010 9:16 PM:

Concerning peak oil, one very important point to consider is not only the absolute peak, but also the rate of decline after the peak.

If oil production plateaus for a number of years and then begins a gradual decline, the effect on the world economy would be very different than if oil production peaked sharply and declined rapidly.

I predict the former scenario.

Randall Parker said at June 28, 2010 10:23 PM:

Tom Bri,

Yes, the bumpy plateau looks like it might go on for a few more years at least. I really hope so. We aren't ready yet.

A long production plateau with a gradually rising price at that plateau would be ideal since high oil prices would signal the market to make needed investments and adjustments to deal with the consequences. If the production decline come on very rapidly then the adjustments will be far more painful.

James Bowery said at June 29, 2010 3:20 PM:

"Kulaks never learn."

Think about paying for the primary service of government, upholding property rights, and you might get a clue.

Ken Fabos said at June 30, 2010 10:57 PM:

I think Mickey Foley is mostly wrong; not that such thinking doesn't exist but that it's widespread and is a primary motivation for calls for serious action on serious issues such as climate change. Taking the conservative IPCC as a benchmark for where scientific understanding of climate change is currently at (more climate scientists think it underestimates future climate impacts than overestimates them) the consequences of failure to deal with emissions looks highly likely to have enormous consequences. Calling for action on this isn't doomerism, just the most appropriate response. I don't think climate change will cause the end of civilisation because I think the delusion that it's all natural and is based on inappropriate 'doomism' will lose most of it's popular strength, we'll begin to see ever more bipartisan agreement on action and we will begin seriously doing something about it.
I don't want the world to end. I want avoidable disasters avoided and am dubious of arguments that try to portray the honest motivation to avoid the avoidable catastrophes and have backup plans for the unavoidable ones as some kind of anti-social psychology at work.
Mickey Foley says - "He (the doomer) mainly desires to see everyone brought down to his level. His fondest wish is for everyone to be as emotionally crippled as he is, and, if they could also be paralyzed fiscally, that would be great too." - I'm not sure who this is referring to - the most extreme and unthinking greens? - but the vast majority of people who want serious action on climate change don't have such destructive motivations; on the contrary they have been made aware of a real problem and want it faced rather than avoided. I have no desire for the downfall of industrialised civilisation but I do have a strong desire to see it be sustainable and non-destructive to the biosphere we depend upon.
I think it's the opposite psychology that's more dangerous; refusing to acknowledge the real consequences of leaving real problems unaddressed and attacking the people (and motivations of people) who think action is appropriate and necessary.

Carol said at July 29, 2010 12:27 AM:

Interesting use of a meme common in the US: everyone who isn't a "winner" is a "loser." Considering the way the US must suck the wealth of the world into its vortex (i.e., the natural resources of other countries) to keep its economic system going, it's not surprising that anyone who thinks that this system is wrong and/or unsustainable is branded a loser. Easier to keep chanting "you're all losers, you're all losers, therefore I'm a winner."

Or put another way, "might makes right." The economics of the schoolground.

The other interesting meme: "this is the only game in town," that is, the only measure of "success" is the one defined by the educational system that programmed American schoolchildren. Mature people *are* capable of creating other measures of success, particularly ones less destructive than the "I win, you lose" game, ones that go beyond simply being reactive to the current system. "Nyeh, nyeh, nyeh, you're a loser isn't an adequate response.

Doom said at October 12, 2010 9:37 PM:

The US economy is doomed.

Long live Russia and China. Printing money
only caused hyperinflation. Your manufacturing
base is dead- the middle class is withering and your
fighting two lost wars in the Middle East.
America is where USSR was in 1991 before the collapse
and the inevitable withdrawl from Afganistan.

US Bonds are held by China, Russia and Arab Oil states.
Militarily and economically the US is in the hangmans noose.

Keep smiling thats all you have.

Face it, your doomed.

rasqual said at September 5, 2014 12:35 PM:


There's a lot of inferring to generalizations about the cohort at issue (doomers) that doesn't seem warranted. "This phenomenon is best explained in terms of a theory that the individuals in this group think in a particular way."

I find doomers peculiar, so I hold no brief with their critics. But I could just as well theorize that "anti-doomers" can best be explained by a general attitude that doomers are insecure, and so forth. Indeed, I could explain that this need to put down doomers is itself a product of insecurity.

Which would all be silly -- but that's actually my point. Psychoanalysis by triangulation from inferred theoretical explanations is really, really presumptuous.

It could all be TRUE, of course. Impugning a careless way of analyzing social phenomena -- however warranted I might consider my impugning -- doesn't mean the analyst ain't right. ;-)

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