Paul Kingsnorth of the doomer ‘Dark Mountain’ project seems busy psychoanalysing everyone that disagrees with him. Apparently he knows the near future, and it is Dark, with a capital ‘D’ for Doom. However when we dig just a little deeper into this article we just find inconsistency, logical fallacies, political assumptions, denial, and the sheer danger involved in Dark Mountain’s Doomerism. So lets start at the beginning.
Paul spends 9 paragraphs detailing how ‘labels’ are used to ridicule and dismiss the opposition. Nine paragraphs! Surely anyone that has ever lived through an election campaign does not really need this spelt out in such agonising detail?
But of course this time the labels have been directed at him, and so he has to come up with something ‘deeper’ than the mere term label. Paul uses “Terms of Dismissal” to try and insinuate that more is going on here than mere labelling.
“It’s dog-whistle politics: calling someone a socialist signals to millions of other people that they are not to be listened to. They are on the Dark Side. They are not One Of Us.”
By paragraph 10 Paul gets down to business. After all the waffling about labels (or Terms of Dismissal) we discover that insults have been directed at the Dark Mountain project. This hurts. This is why Paul is writing. He is trying to explain the startling phenomenon that some greenies would rather react to doomerism than automatically lie down with a paper-bag over their head to wait for the end of the world, just because we are facing a number of rather urgent problems!
Anyone who writes or speaks about the likelihood of a depleted future, and the false hope peddled by those whose various schemes for avoiding it are looking more ragged by the day, will be showered in TODs.
That’s right folks, because Paul knows the future, and because it is a message people do not like, he’s going to get picked on. Poor Paul.
Solitaire Townsend says Get down off your Dark Mountain. George Monbiot has said I share their despair, but I am not quite ready to climb the Dark Mountain. Apparently Dark Mountain has been making some noise and drawing some flak.
But no sooner has Paul finished describing what labelling is, and how it hurts, than he suddenly throws it back at us ‘optimists’. After spending 9 paragraphs explaining why we are so prone to labelling others, Paul then returns the favour!
He carefully explains that any one that disagrees with him basically needs counselling! Us poor optimists are not only deceiving others with false hope, but “the false hope peddled by those whose various schemes for avoiding it are looking more ragged by the day”.
We are just reacting to our “inherent psychological assumptions”. We are “addicted to the status quo”. (Paragraph 11).
Paul, all you’ve done is prove what an effective tool labelling is! After decrying how prone we are to it, rather than positing an argument full of logically related points, you just call us deluded optimists. Nice one!
2. Wonky logic
This labelling is then twisted into one of the oldest logical fallacies in the book. He’s using ‘Denial’ the way the Freudians do. According to the Freudians, all your problems are related to the way your mother rejected you when you were in love with her as a toddler. If you deny this and ask for proof, it’s just labelled as Denial. It’s just further proof of their assertion!
CS Lewis calls this “Bulverism”.
Lewis wrote about this in a 1941 essay of the same name, later included in the anthology God in the Dock. He explains the origin of this term:
You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism”. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third — “Oh you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment”, E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.
It’s a dirty and dishonest tactic that avoids actually engaging with the substance of the debate.
Dark Mountain just assumes they are right and that there is no hope of civilisation prospering a few decades from now. It’s either going to violently collapse or gradually decay. No optimistic scenarios are allowed! Now anyone that has read my blog even briefly knows that I take our combined challenges very seriously. Peak oil, climate change, population growth, species destruction, suburban sprawl, topsoil degradation, toxic load in ecosystems, the ocean being overfished and over-polluted, all of these things are very serious indeed!
But where is Dark Mountain’s debunking of the speed at which Rezoning could retrofit our cities to become oil free? What about the fact that because the car fleet turns over every 16 years it effectively means 6% of the car fleet is replaced each year? Governments could mandate that all new cars had to be electric. This means that if we break down oil dependency into the various energy market segments (such as agriculture, heavy transport, construction and airlines) then we can see that the natural rate of electric car substitution could about keep up with oil decline for that market segment! (Other segments may require other solutions).
What is going to charge all these cars? Existing ‘off peak’ overnight electricity could run 70% of American cars! But not only that, existing technologies for Gen3 nuclear reactors could be cheaply built out to both keep up with new demand for electricity AND gradually replace coal. When GenIV reactors are fully commercialised they will burn nuclear waste and run the world for 500 years just on the waste we have already mined today!
There are many more positive technologies and social trends that experts I respect talk about, and that I have catalogued under my “Radical Rules” (Rezone, Refuel, etc). Many positive technical and societal transformations are possible. Where does Dark Mountain dismiss these? Where have they comprehensively debunked the technical writing of scientists like Barry Brook? They haven’t. We are just left with their own TOD’s to us optimists. We are hit with cheap Bulverisms not rational response.
Both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ trends are accelerating and interacting in exponential ways, so I defy anyone to predict the next 20 years! I recommend a little humility before the exponential changes occurring around us, both good and bad. I am honest enough to admit that I don’t know how peak oil and global warming will unfold.
4. Political assumptions
I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the end of the American republic in any meaningful sense in my lifetime, and I wouldn’t be surprised either to see its slide to the hard right continue until it becomes something very nasty indeed.
I have found over the years that if Doomers don’t have a concrete, bullet-proof technical objection to a positive technology, they just fall back onto a political objection. “Oh, they’ll never do that because….” (insert pessimistic scenario here). They’ll just assume something as massive as us never adopting nuclear power because people would rather starve to death in the cold!
Debating doomers is like grasping smoke. You posit something real and concrete and possible, and if they can’t disprove it outright, they waft around it. After 6 years of this it becomes both predictable and boring.
But this strategy can go dreadfully wrong for the doomers. Back in 2004 on the doomer email list ROEOZ I was assured that Australian politicians would NEVER discuss overpopulation. “Oh, they’ll never do that because….” (there is too much money in real estate development, they can’t touch that issue, the Christian right will never let them get away with it, yadda yadda yadda).
But here we are in the 2010 election and overpopulation featured as an ELECTION DEBATE TOPIC! “Oh, they’ll never do that because….” Whoops. They did do that. They discussed it! For the first time in our history, sustainable population is close to becoming a government discussion and eventually a policy! Even if it is only Julia Gillard trying to differentiate her political ‘brand’ from Kevin Rudd, it is still a milestone. In one of the blandest elections Australia has ever had, the “P” word got a mention! That is a miracle in itself.
None of these positive trends matter to the hardened Doomer. I can admit the negative trends they talk about. Indeed, it is why I started this blog. We really COULD nuke ourselves back to the Stone Age fighting over the last drop of oil. I’m not saying catastrophe is impossible. Real oil wars and climate disasters and terrible floods and scorching droughts and new disease vectors are all possible. When I consider the possible risks ahead, I shudder. This stuff is for real! I get it!
But are all these scenarios inevitable? All of them? Really? There are ways to fight these trends.
What mystifies George Monbiot and Solitaire Townsend and myself is that while Doomers will salivate with glee over negative trend, they’ll ignore the positive. They’ll study peak oil graphs and rising Co2 graphs, but ignore projections for nuclear power, electric cars, or city transformation and public transport schedules. These are all ‘explained away’. Say it with me, “Oh, they’ll never do that BECAUSE…”
They have given up the fight, and become cynical Apocalyptic Outsiders waiting for a greenie, peak oil judgement day to sweep aside today’s civilisation and force us into behaving ourselves! I say rubbish! Get out there and do something positive, because the fight to save the best things about our civilisation AND our environment are both worth battles. If we give up totally on today’s civilisation, the consequences for young people especially can be terrible.
5. The DANGER
Where does this quest for certainty of doom come from? Well, I’m not going to Bulverise Paul specifically. I don’t know what motivates him. But I will share some findings from psychological studies into various cult-like thinking.
Paul’s last paragraph impressed me because he tried to finish on a more reasonable note. He admits that both apocalyptic doomers and techno-optimists are after the same thing: certainty. The future ahead looks very uncertain indeed. I would agree with him, if only he left his last assertion at this logical point. Yet he just basically goes on to project certainty that we’ll either collapse or slowly decay.
It has been documented that the certainty of doom is what attracts people into various cults. Any kind of certainty is preferable to uncertainty. We do not like uncertainty.
As a good friend of mine is Dr Greg Clarke. Some time ago Greg was invited onto the ABC’s religious program Compass to comment on Apocalyptic thinking in the Christian church, something Greg is a bit of an expert on. Now read Greg’s comments very carefully. As a good mate, we had some fairly long chats about my rather manic awakening to peak oil some years ago. In the early days I was a doomer myself. Over to Greg.
These days apocalyptic thinking is common and pervasive
1. Are we at the end – the end of the world…?
It’s a question humans have asked throughout the ages. In our own time too, many people fear we’re on the brink of apocalypse…
We do see it today in things like the environmental movement. We say around the corner is a terrible disaster, we’re heading towards it. And the sense of fear and anxiety develops and turns into a full blown sort of apocalyptic fervour.
That was exactly what I was going through some years back, and it was not pleasant! Unlike many that appear comforted by their certainty of the end of the world as we know it, I was not. However, as psychologist Susan Tanner explained on the same episode of Compass, some people are comforted!
Now many things are not predictable. The world is a very uncertain place. People change their jobs, organisations fold, collapse, you know, There is no guarantee in anything any more…Global threats like war, climate change certainly create anxiety too because the future is no longer guaranteed…
.…that sort of unpredictability and uncertainty creates a lot of anxiety, and anxiety is often a precursor to depression.
Unresolved anxiety sets people up for depression, because you can then feel despondent that well there actually isn’t anything I can do. Because climate change is out of my hands, terrorism is out of my hands…
So that can lead to what’s called catastrophic thinking, that imagining the worst scenario of what might happen and then believing that that’s what will happen.
Surprisingly, being certain about the end can actually bring relief to those suffering anxiety…
Apocalyptic thinking can be very useful to people who need to feel a sense of control, and that they therefore feel calm because they know what’s going to happen. Living with uncertainty, living with a question mark is the hardest thing to do for all human beings. We like to know what’s going to happen. That’s why we visit clairvoyants and you know we have our tarots read and all sorts of things….
Apocalypse can even be attractive for its own sake if we are predicting catastrophe for groups we do not like. It’s the greenie judgement day scenario again, where all those evil corporations are just wiped out. It’s why Dark Mountain exists, so all the doomers can get together and confirm each other in their secret, special ‘knowledge’ about the coming environmental wrath.
But sometimes this certainty is not so comforting. Doomers are a real risk to young people. The sheer certainty with which they project the future is unreal: it is the stuff of cults. It is a belief system, backed by their own creeds and symbols and High Priests of doom. And the reason I’m so worked up about it is that it kills. I know of one bright young 19 year old kid who killed himself so that he would not witness the collapse of society. The views he had were so entrenched that he lost all hope and gave up on life. I hold the doomers I know on a certain email list in Australia partly responsible for this young man’s death. I was on the email list, presenting various alternative views, but the group think was too strong. I had lunch with his father, and the grief in that poor man’s world is unbearable.
But even if Doomerism doesn’t kill them, it can certainly become a hope sapping obsession that can completely distracts them from study and work. It can become worse than World of Warcraft addiction!
It can also side-track activists into just plain giving up hope for a better world. It stops activism. Why bother if collapse is inevitable? They switch off, and retreat from political engagement into a world of navel gazing doomer forums where everyone thinks as they do.
In summary: I don’t hate doomers. Some of them are very smart people talking about the very real risks to law and order and food supplies and the stuff of daily life that most of us just take for granted.
However, I hate their pessimism. I hate their tricky denial of the many technical and social change solutions that are available to us once we get motivated. Yes the car is speeding towards the cliff, apparently with the breaks out. But there are quite a few emergency exit ramps before we go over the cliff. That is why I’m sticking with the likes of Alex Steffen from Worldchanging who completely dismiss the doomer meme as an unnecessary distraction. There’s work to do. It’s time to pull up your sleeves and get back into it!