March 28, 2023The Intersectioncomplexitypublic policy

We mustn’t let young minds live in constant fear of an apocalypse

To save the world, first stop scaring the mickey out of children

Mint This is an unedited draft of The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

Prominent tech bros’ are now  predicting a catastrophic financial crisis in the US leading to hyper inflation and apocalypse. It’s funny how people who took zero interest rates for granted, made fantastic predictions about techno-utopias but failed to plan for something as predictable as changes in interest rates are now forecasting the end of the world as we know it. They are not alone.

Jonathan Franzen’s essay in the New Yorker is a good example of the end is nigh” narrative. Even the Bulletin says that doomsday is already here. Michael Shellenberger offers the antidote.

Many climate change activists—and a number of authors, film stars, corporate leaders and public intellectuals who draw oversimplified conclusions from the complex synthesis of climate  science—will tell you that we’re already past the brink, and nothing we do will avert an apocalypse. A lot of contemporary science fiction no longer has space operas or Orwellian societies, but apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes. Never mind that the IPCCs latest synthesis report emphasizes the urgency of global action, not its futility.

Artificial intelligence, if it is not going to enslave or destroy humanity, is set to wipe out white-collar jobs, while robots do it for blue-collar ones. Putin has moved the needle of the Doomsday Clock towards midnight and we might be an accident away from nuclear annihilation. Meanwhile, both the right and left wings around the world are shredding liberal institutions and taking us towards Endarkenment. Covid might have subsided, but long covid remains, and new and more lethal pandemics are over the horizon. Never mind that we sequenced the coronavirus genome in days, developed a vaccine in weeks and administered it to billions of people within a couple of years of the outbreak.

Jobs will disappear in the future, so we’ll need universal basic income. But economic growth is destroying the planet so we need to de-grow. Taxing the ultra-rich is the only solution.  Even so, college will be unaffordable to most people, and you can forget about  owning a house. In any case, you should be more worried about a refugee influx, food shortages and running out of water…

This is the narrative diet that young people around the world are growing up on. A lot of people believe an apocalypse is inevitable, an outcome of immoral and rapacious human behaviour, and everyone is culpable by the mere fact of being born. Like medieval Europeans, many people today find themselves fervently believing the signs of the times.

Hickman, Marks et al find that children around the world are anxious and scared about climate change.

Spare a thought for what this is doing to young people, who find themselves immersed in fear, anxiety and existential terror. A recent international survey of young people by Caroline Hickman and colleagues confirms what a young Aditya Narayan precociously rapped in the 1995 film Rangeela:”Tension! Tension! Tension!” And more so in India than in the West.
Hickman and Marks, et al

At some point in the past 20 years, we crossed the point of making people more aware of problems and rallying them for change to scaring the living daylights out of them. The toll on their mental health has been severe.

The apocalyptic mindset is already affecting their personal and political decisions. I do not think a fearful and anxious population instantly connected on global networks is best placed to make good decisions about our collective future. The brain is cannot make rational choices under continuous duress. Instead, adrenaline and knee-jerk intuition combine to offer extreme responses that get mistaken for solutions.

A thousand years ago, Europeans  persecuted Jews, tortured heretics, went around flagellating themselves and fought one another in the belief that those were the right things to do before the world ended. As Catalin Negru writes in History of the  Apocalypse: The year 1000 revealed a cruel truth, which would be experienced by subsequent generations as well: apocalyptic fears often lead to economic disaster. The certainty that the world is on the verge of a total renovation reconfigures the spiritual and material priorities and cancels any long-term plan of social or economic nature.”

To confront the unprecedented global challenges that are before us, we must protect the human mind and put it in its best possible frame. For the risks are real, severe and getting worse. Yet even polycrises are not invulnerable to human agency. Scientists, analysts and activists must emphasize hope and agency alongside the magnitude and urgency of our collective problems.  We should not allow young people to surrender to the impression that we  are powerless to change the world for better. Both material and moral progress is possible, and we have thousands of years of empirical evidence to support this claim. If we want to make the world a better place, we must first stop scaring the shit out of our kids.

Tailpiece: This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” So said Franklin D. Roosevelt in March 1933.

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