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It's not the end of the world - it's the end of you

Last week's London snowstorm was the last straw. With no particular scientific evidence in hand, I have come to the conclusion that global warming is a looney cult. Londoners may have frolicked on the frozen Thames in the days of famous diarist Samuel Pepys in the mid-17th century, but today's Britons cannot reconcile this disruption of their lukewarm climate with the notion that temperatures are steadily rising.

The scientific controversy is beyond me, but I can recognize the fixed stare, the strained voice-throb and the rigid jaw of a madman at a hundred paces. The Greens hector us about the impending end of the world. I put it to them: perhaps it is not the end of the world, but just the end of you. Analysis of global temperature is a subtle issue about which reasonable men might in good faith reach different conclusions. The evangelical zealotry that motivates the global-warmers has a different source than the facts.

Human beings cannot bear their own transient existence without some hope of immortality. Except for the Americans, whom Europeans dismiss as bovine about such things, the children of the West long ago abandoned the promises of religion. The childless Europeans lack even the consolation of physical continuity. They have no future; other people will occupy the lands where they dwell, and their languages will be entombed in libraries. The myriad amusements available to them cannot forever distract them from the horrible advent of their own disappearance. Europeans: As a matter of demographic fact, it is indeed the end of you (Why Europe chooses extinction, April 8, 2003).

That settled, let us consider the minor matter of the end of the world. For the same reason that men cannot live without the hope of immortality, they cannot bear their gray, miserable lives without some sense of exaltation - religion, art, music, poetry, sex, drugs, violence, whatever. With the decline of Christianity and its bodyguard, the high culture of the West, sex, drugs and violence predominate. These devices eventually leave the user all the more anxious.

By living on the underside of popular culture, the young people of the West make themselves feel worthless and insignificant. In the cartoon Ants , an insect (with Woody Allen's voice) complains to an ant psychiatrist: "I feel so insignificant," to which the ant psychiatrist replies: "That's a breakthrough. You are insignificant." That is a creepy thought; if human beings truly felt themselves to be insignificant, the suicide rate would be much higher. In fact, cultures who truly come to feel insignificant, eg, Stone Age peoples who come into unwanted contact with the modern world, sometimes register suicide rates of 25 percent to 50 percent (Live and let die, April 13, 2002). We do not typically observe very high rates of suicide because the human mind resists its own destruction by wishing away its sense of insignificance. Paranoia is one such device. In the United States, many African-Americans believe that evil white doctors invented AIDS to wipe out the black population. Adolf Hitler believed that syphilis was a Jewish plot to poison Aryan blood. Egyptian high school textbooks teach that American pilots and spy technology secretly won the 1967 war for Israel, and so forth.

Today's educated Westerners do not normally believe in such bizarre ideas, but they are susceptible to subtler forms of the same thing. The sense of the transcendent they derive from contemplating nature is of desperate importance. "It is not that I will pass from the earth without leaving so much as a grease spot to mark my stay," thinks the Green. "It is the earth herself who is in danger. The rain forests will vanish! The whales will become extinct! The German forest is dying! The ice caps are melting!"

Anxiety about the irreversible disappearance of some feature of the natural world substitutes for the death-anxiety of the individual. In the extreme case, the Green becomes the enemy of industrial civilization in general. Of course I do not oppose sensible measures to protect rain forests, prevent over-fishing, and so forth, but I am weary of the fanaticism that distinguishes the conservationist from the environmental fanatic who has turned against civilization. It is worth observing that the US returns farmland to the wilderness every year, because rising agricultural productivity concentrates more output on a smaller number of square kilometers. Wandering the forests of New Hampshire one continuously stumbles on stone fences that long ago enclosed small farms.

Perhaps that explains why Americans showed insufficient concern over global warming to support the 1997 Kyoto Treaty (not even Howard Dean would sign it as currently presented). In their experience, the wilderness is growing not shrinking. Something deeper may be at work, however. Unlike the Europeans, most Americans cling to the old Judeo-Christian religion, according to which the sun and moon simply are lamps and watches set in the sky for the use of humankind. For them, what is transcendent is a creator who is not himself part of nature. Celestial bodies merely sit on the display cases of the creator's shop window. Far fewer Americans confound their own sense of mortality with the vulnerability of the natural world, because they have chosen other means to address the matter of mortality.

Otherwise, I shall continue to collect recipes for endangered species. An acquaintance in the Pacific Northwest of the United States assures me that spotted owl tastes just like chicken. Asia Times Online readers may send their favorite recipes for authentically endangered species to letters@atimes.com.

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Feb 3, 2004



 

 
   
       
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