Do you feel special? So special that you think you live in a unique time? Andrew Stuttaford thinks vanity is behind the belief of many people who believe they live in the end time or in the time where great disaster will befall us.
I’ve long suspected that amongst those who believe that the apocalypse is just round the corner, a certain vanity may well be at work – the belief that their time is somehow special.
The desire to treat terrible events as the harbinger of the end of civilization itself also has roots in another human trait: vanity.
We all believe we live in an exceptional time, perhaps even a critical moment in the history of the species. Technology appears to have given us power over the atom, our genomes, the planet—with potentially dire consequences. This attitude may stem from nothing more than our desire to place ourselves at the center of the universe. “It’s part of the fundamental limited perspective of our species to believe that this moment is the critical one and critical in every way—for good, for bad, for the final end of humanity,” says Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego. Imagining the end of the world is nigh makes us feel special.
To feel special is to feel one's status is higher. That's a fundamental human need. On a related note see my post Mickey Foley: The Doomer's Curse about why people wish for a disastrous end to our current civilization: the desire for higher relative status. You can also listen to me interviewed about this in KMO's podcasts Got Status? and The Success Trap.
Natural selection bequeathed us many cognitive flaws that cause our emotional needs to distort already flawed and very limited reasoning faculties. Only a small fraction of the human race is smart enough to create the scientific and technological civilization that makes web logs and social networking sites possible. Even that smart fraction has lots of cognitive flaws that prevent an accurate assessment of our situation. I hope our cognitive flaws do not eventually lead us into creating an extremely special disastrous situation. I prefer boring progress and the only special thing I really want is a fully rejuvenated body.
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.