Friday, January 01, 2010

NYT op-ed about Y2K, AGW, and other cataclysmic prophesies

The New York Times printed an excellent op-ed by Denis Dutton, a philosophy professor in New Zealand:
It's always the end of the world as we know it
He discusses the Y2K fiasco as a template for global warming and other movements obsessed with the end of the world and "cosmic justice" that will destroy the sinful civilization. These movements, as he argues, simply recycle the old religious instincts that have fascinated the mankind for thousands of years.

Click the picture for more Y2K fear propaganda.

His detailed memories about the Y2K problem would be kind of amazing if I didn't remember they were really told by influential sources all the time. While 1999 - with its booming economy and subdued terrorism - should have been viewed as the ultimate happy year, journalists, pop-scientists, and the rest of pundits loved the Y2K meme.

The end of the world was coming once again. The elevators, cars, airplanes, banks etc. would crash, we were told. About 300 billion U.S. dollars were wasted for this "problem".

Of course, nothing happened. The first countries entering the 2000s such as New Zealand celebrated their great investments to avoid the looming catastrophe. Except that in countries that spent almost nothing, such as South Korea (or Ukraine), nothing worth noticing happened, either. ;-)

This is just a joke. He didn't need an Apple.

The Y2K problem also had its deniers. The most prominent Y2K denier, Bill Gates, even dared to criticize the prophets for spreading the fear! Contemplate about his cosmic blasphemy. ;-)

The Y2K problem fits into a long sequence of stories spread by the people who are simply fascinated with the global cataclysm: Nostradamus, asteroids, aliens, weapons of mass destruction, bird flu, swine flu, you name it. Today, the loudest one is global warming. The hysteria in the media exceeds that of the Y2K problem by one or two orders of magnitude. So one shouldn't be shocked that instead of 300 billion dollars, people are expected to spend proportionally more money, namely trillions or tens of trillions of dollars.

Of course, it's no longer a story about the religious instincts only. Many people also have very rational, egotistic reasons to help the alarm. But that's a different story.


  1. Many denounce this facination, this fear ( and love ) for the 'end of the world'. But few tries to explain it.

    What is important for me is to understand WHY so many people fall for these stories. Why do they love it, and fear them at the same time?

    As sang REM: 'It's the end of the world, and I fell fine'...
    WHY ?

    The best answer that I found so far is in the work of Ayn Rand. Books like "Philosophy, who need's it" or "Return of the primitive" are good lead to an answer. ( That I will not try to resume here... )

    Just being curious... Do you have a better lead than the one offered by Ayn Rand ?

    I sometime fells like being the only one who wants to understand WHY people WANT (for exemple) the global warming to be true and catastrophic. Why do they 'love' that idea...?

  2. Hi Francois,

    good question. And it's hard to answer.

    Of course, many people have personal interests for the hysteria to be accepted: they have invested into green firms, they want their papers to be cited, they want their family and friends to tell them that they were always right, they want to be reelected as saviors, etc. I won't discuss these because their motivation is obvious.

    For the true believers, I think that the love for the doomsday always stems from an incorrect appraisal of the importance of their real life now. Everyone makes some mistake in it - and whatever mistake is made, it leads people to love the future doomsday stories. Why?

    If you think that your current life etc. is more important than it is, you live in a desperate fear that it will end. It's the same reason as in individual death - the fear that the life will end is ultimately the main driver pushing people to religions.

    So some people genuinely love their current life so much that they refuse to accept the very possibility that it will end. Of course that it will end: the individual life of them in less than 120 years and the life of all mankind probably in 10 billion years or less when the Sun is exhausted. ;-)

    So the people who think that life should be permanent are scared that this expectation could be wrong, and they frantically look for loopholes.

    On the other hand, if some people consider their current life unimportant, it's probably because they're bored. And bored people look for much more exciting lives - where the whole fate of life on Earth is at stake. They will look for these stories because the reality is just too unexciting for them.

    But I still think that it's not true that in the average over long times and many societies, this cataclysm thinking will absorb most people. For example, I think that most people in current Czechia don't give a damn about any of these looming catastrophes. The people who are afraid are "more interesting" in this respect, and their emotional opinion is more frequently reported and others accept it from their role models.

    Best wishes

  3. A lot of my friends seem to be motivated by the 'precautionary principle', meaning that if something bad is possible you should try to do something to prevent it.

    I recently sent them a list of potential problems that the precautionary principle should be applied to, according to their thinking. Some were contradictory, e.g. ice age vs GW but one was just plain silly (

    I haven't heard back from them yet. They probably won't reply, tho, which is what they usually do when they don't have an answer.

    BTW, Willis Eschenbach has a nice writeup on when & how to apply the precautionary principle over at Anthony Watts'.

  4. Regarding Francois's question about explaining the great appeal of the end of the world for many people:

    Is it analogous to the appeal that the impending Revolution had for western Marxists for about a century? Raymond Aron, in France, wrote a book about that issue, called "The Opium of the Intellectuals." If memory serves, he explained it as puerile romanticism.

    Perhaps there is another explanation: the more rational and scientific an ideology is on the SURFACE, the more savage and emotional it will be allowed to be, below the surface.