Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Doom: A Force that Gives Life Meaning

 Sting - Russians

Trinity test.

(This blog title refers to the saying that war is a force that gives life meaning. Chris Hedges has a book on that particular topic.)

As I write in Losing My Religions, the threat of nuclear annihilation overshadowed much of my life growing up, especially after Reagan's election and his "jokes" about bombing the Soviet Union.

This wasn't irrational; much of the northern hemisphere came close to devastation a frightening number of times. (BBC article; longer Wikipedia list of nuclear near-misses - pay particular attention to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1983 event. You and I are alive because of Vasily Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov.)

Those two paragraphs are a tangentially-relevant introduction to my main topic:

There has always been a subset of people who believe the world is going to end. 

As far as I can tell, some form of Apocalypticism has pretty much always existed in human history. In the past, though, it has mostly been within a religious context. However, during my lifetime, there has been a number of "rationalist" / "scientific" forms of doomism.

Perhaps the first one that came to my attention was championed by Wrong About Everything Yet Still Celebrated Paul Ehrlich. ("The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.")

Currently, there is the Dogma of Climate Catastrophism and Effective Altruism's Church of Existential Risk. 

I think it was in The Demon-Haunted World where Carl Sagan noted that the advent of rocket launches and space flight brought with it UFO sightings and fears of aliens. Today, there is a section of the population for whom computers are the wrathful god we must fear. 

All of the above is just a preface to suggest listening to Tyler Cowen on Russ Roberts' EconTalk. This is not meant as an endorsement of Cowen, Roberts, or EconTalk, but I think it would be useful to set aside any preconceptions and consider the ideas discussed - especially the historical context of apocalypticism (and general pessimism). 

Not to repeat myself (OK, yes - I'm repeating myself) but doomism is making the world a much worse place. Climate catastrophism has destroyed the mental health of an untold number of people, and, as discussed in this blog and Losing, is actually causing more climate change and worse impacts. Obsession with big numbers and "extinction" has led many smart people to spend their lives not working on all the incredible unnecessary suffering that exists right now

So instead of listening to another depressing podcast, consider trying this episode of EconTalk for a different perspective. 

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Tony K said...

OK. I am convinced too that we are brothers from another mother, or perhaps the same person in a parallel universe or something else weird.

I listen to econtalk too. Not because I agree with it all (I don't), but because he presents a reasonable alternative take on the world. I think Russ misses the point of models in general. They're not to give us good forecasts, but rather good insights so we can make better decisions.

Anyway, rock on brother.

Matt Ball said...

This is getting weird, Tony!