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ANDERSON: The Age of Atonement

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August 18, 2015 - 8:12 AM

"As the first thousand years of our calendar drew to an end, in every land of Europe the people expected with certainty the destruction of the world. Some squandered their substance in riotous living, others bestowed it for the salvation of their souls on churches and convents, bewailing multitudes lay by day and by night about the altars, many looked with terror, yet most with a secret hope, for the conflagration of the earth and the falling of heaven." ~ G.L. Burr 1901

Although there are scholarly arguments about the degree and extent of first millennial fears of the apocalypse, there is ample evidence that apocalyptic fears weighed on the mind of the mediaeval population of Europe. For a people so steeped in religion this is not surprising. For a people so steeped in science, what is surprising is that we too, of the turn of the second millennium, are apparently subject to the same fears, although now we tend to cloak it in the robes of science.

As the nineteenth century wore on, both scientific advancement and western optimism flourished in what became known as the Age of Progress. The base assumption of the age was that science would cure the ills of their own time... medicine would end the great plagues of previous centuries, technology would end starvation, and humanity could look forward to a future of peace and prosperity forevermore.

The Age of Progress lasts through two world wars and culminated in the Apollo Space Program and Man's first and last footprints on the moon.

But beginning in the late 1960s, and still going strong today, a series of cataclysmic visions have emerged and gripped the popular mind to such an extent that some of them have changed our behaviours to the tune of trillions of dollars before fading away.

Perhaps the first was Paul Ehrlich's "Population Bomb," a Malthusian nightmare in which overpopulation and resultant mass starvation would sweep the globe, killing millions. In Ehrlich's own words: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970's and 1980's hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." To say that the population bomb thesis was backed by scientific consensus is no overstatement. My own father, a PhD plant geneticist serving as head of the India Wheat Program under Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, was among those convinced beyond a shadow of doubt that the world was on the edge of a great and unavoidable culling. It never happened, of course.

The population bomb was followed by a host of dire world-ending theses, including the New Ice Age (precursor to Global Warming, in which some scientists wanted to spread carbon on the poles to warm them up), the Club of Rome (a 1972 report which claimed we were going to run out of resources long before now), the oil crisis (in which western society would collapse due to middle eastern intransigence), Nuclear Winter (in which an entire generation gave up hope of ever living to old age because of the world-ending nuclear exchange), Ozone Hole, Y2K, Bird Flu, Peak Oil, and now of course Global Warming or, in its most recent incarnation, "Climate Change."  And those are just a few of the main apocalyptica of our own age.

Whatever the scientific merits for any and all of these, it is the psychology involved that interests me. We seem to have moved from the Age of Progress to the Age of Atonement, although as far as I know no one has called it that yet. It's as if we're ashamed of having come so far.

— Scott Anderson is a Vernon City Councillor, freelance writer, commissioned officer in the Canadian Forces Reserves and a bunch of other stuff. His academic background is in International Relations, Strategic Studies, Philosophy, and poking progressives with rhetorical sticks until they explode.

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