Prophets of doom

Greater Kashmir

Pessimism is always big box-office. Pessimists sound like they’re trying to help you. Data scientists, carrying out the sentiment-mining (of the people’s opinion) show the world is becoming gloomier day by day.  The airwaves are crammed with doom. The bookshops groan under ziggurats of pessimism. As good news is presented as bad news, consumers become glum, misperceive risk, harbour contempt and grow desensitized. A kind of collective-refusal to believe that life is getting better, critics that pan a book are perceived as more competent than the critics that praise it. Those that predict the worst are hailed as prophets. They can expect a Nobel-peace prize. Journalists believe they’re discharging their duty as watchdogs, muckrakers and whistleblowers. In fact, they’re accentuating the negative. In the constant drumbeat of pessimism if you say the world has been getting better you may get away with being called as naïve and insensitive, embarrassingly mad & everything from imbecile to flat-earther and criminal. Optimists sound like trying to sell something. Someone who offers a solution is dismissed as not a panacea, a silver-bullet or a magic-bullet but a band-aid that fails to get at the root causes and has side-effects and unintended consequences. Complaining about modern society is a backhanded way of putting down ones rivals.

Our generation that has experienced more peace, freedom, leisure time, education, medicine, travel, movies, mobile phones, and massages than any generation in history, has all along been listening to implacable predictions of growing poverty, coming famines, expanding deserts, imminent plagues, impending water wars, inevitable oil exhaustions, mineral shortages, falling sperm-counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rains, nuclear winters, mad-cow epidemics, Y2K computer bugs, global warming, receding glaciers, terrorism and even asteroid impacts that would bring us to terrible end. As living-standards shoot up, intellectuals are obsessed with imminent decline, degeneration and disaster.  Doom after doom are promised. One by one these scares come and go. One or other of these scares is solemnly espoused or hysterically echoed by the distinguished and serious elites like, Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Al Franken, Al Gore, John Gray, and Michael Moore.

No charity ever raised money for its cause by saying things are getting better. No journalists ever got a front page by telling his editor that he wanted to write a story about how disaster was now less likely. Good news is no news. The media-megaphone is at the disposal of any politician, journalist, or activist who can plausibly warn of a coming disaster. In effect pressure groups and their customers in the media frantically search even the most cheerful statistics for ‘glimmers of doom’. Defining moments, tipping points, thresholds and points-of-no-return have been encountered by pessimists in every generation. The drumbeat has become a cacophony. Pessimists are right when they say, ‘if the world continues as it’s, it’ll end in disaster for all humanity’.  Apocaholics exploit and profit from the natural pessimism of human nature, the innate reactionary in every person. Despite progress having been made in every field of our life, pessimists have had all the headlines. Arch-pessimists are feted, showered with honours, and rarely challenged, let alone confronted with their past mistakes. The Ming and Maoist emperors had ruled restricting the growth of business, forbidding, unauthorized travel, punishing innovation, limiting family size. They don’t say so, but that’s inevitable world that the pessimists want to return to when they speak of retreat.

The problem is partly ‘nostalgia’. In the 8th century BC, Hesiod was nostalgic for a lost golden-age when people dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things. There has probably never been a generation that didn’t deplore the fecklessness of the next, and worship the golden memory of the past. The endless modern laments about how texting and emails are shortening the attention-span go back to Plato who deplored writing as a destroyer of memorizing.

The youth of today are pooh-poohed as shallow, selfish, spoiled, feral-good-for-nothing, full-of-narcissism, spend-too-long-time-in-cyberspace, which scalds and defoliates their minds and deprives them of moral agency, imagination, and awareness of consequences. The ‘enterprise-culture’ accordingly means competition, overwork, anxiety and falling ill, even though the children were more overworked, and fell lot more ill in the industrial, feudal, agrarian and Neolithic and hunter-gatherer past.

People fear flying. Almost no one fears driving. Plane-crashes make the news. Car-crashes which kill far more people almost never do. ‘Availability-heuristics’ induces a sense of gloom about the state of the world. Because of amygdala-function and media-competition our airwaves are full of ‘prophets-of-doom’. Because of the ‘negativity-bias’ and the ‘authority-bias’, as also due to our local and linear brains, of which Dunbar’s number (On Facebook people may have thousands of friends but they actually interact with only 150 of them) is but one example, we treat those authority figures as friends which triggers a tendency to give preferential treatment to those, we believe in our own group and makes us trust them even more. Once we start believing that the apocalypse is coming, the amygdala goes on high alert, filtering-out most anything that says otherwise. Whatever information the amygdala doesn’t catch our ‘confirmation-bias’ –which is now biased toward confirming our eminent destruction–certainly does. The population is convinced that the end is near and there isn’t a damn thing to do about it. If we’re heading for disaster then having these biases could be an asset. But this is where things get even stranger. The facts seem to have been confirmed and they’re startling. Forget the hole we’re in being too deep to get out of it there’s really not much of a hole.

As if the pessimism-genes might quite literally be commoner than optimism-genes our species’ predilection for bad news is incredibly moaning pessimism. It’s almost people cling to bad news like comfort-blanket. A combination of ‘cognitive-biases’ and ‘evolutionary-psychology’ being the core problem, ‘loss-aversion’ is what often keeps people stuck in ruts. It’s an unwillingness to change bad habits for fear that the change will leave them in a worse place than before. Thanks to the evolutionary-psychology component, we might be gloomy because gloomy people managed to avoid getting eaten by lions in the Pleistocene.