The Apocalypse is Always Nigh
For all too many of us, all too often.
Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was released in June of 1975 and was a smashing success, becoming the highest-grossing film of all-time to that point and the prototypical summer blockbuster. As you know unless you’ve been living on a desert island for 50 years, the film is a horror-adventure about an enormous great white shark that feasts on the citizens of a New England island resort town.
Spielberg’s restraint adds to the terror as the film’s deaths are mostly bloodless affairs with the apex predator kept out of sight or relegated to brief, nightmare-fuel glimpses. Just two musical notes, separated by a half-step – an E followed by an F – instill fear today, nearly half a century later.
We humans fear the uncertain and the unknown. That fear intensifies in settings where escape is difficult or out of our control. Add a way for the threat to hide so that any attack will be unanticipated, and the situation can seem unbearable. The film’s worst horrors take place only in our minds. But the terror is all too real.
Cases of cinematic neurosis related to the film were reported in towns and cities both close to the ocean and far from it. A 17-year-old girl from western Kansas suffered nuchal rigidity, jerking of the limbs, and hallucinations of being attacked by sharks. Beach attendance dropped dramatically.
I saw Jaws in a small mountain lake town in the Adirondacks the summer it was released. Some people refused to go into the lake after seeing the film. Everyone seemed at least a bit nervous about it.
The terror was irrational, too. You have a far better chance of being killed in a car accident or by lightning than by a shark. We are fascinated by “charismatic megafauna,” but mosquitos kill more people in a day than sharks kill in 100 years.
We humans scare easily. We are equal opportunity extremists who overpay for insurance and lottery tickets alike. Every election is of the Flight 93 variety. The dinosaurs keep escaping Jurassic Park. “Kids these days” have been destroying civilization since Aristotle. Nearly every threat seems existential. The apocalypse is always nigh. Our susceptibility to such fears is the focus of this week’s TBL.
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The Apocalypse is Always Nigh
A large and recent international survey of 10,000 young people, aged 16 to 25 years old, covered ten countries – interviewing 1,000 young people in each – ranging from the U.S and U.K. to the Philippines and Nigeria. More than half – 56 percent – said that “humanity is doomed” due to climate change. Three-quarters said that the “future is frightening.”
The nature of cognition (we deal with threats first) and the nature of news (“if it bleeds, it leads”) interact such that we are highly likely to think the world is worse than it is.
“Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities,” Daniel Kahneman (the world’s leading authority on error) wrote, “have a better chance to survive and reproduce.” As every economist knows, we generally get what we incentivize.
Hence, excessive fear, apocalyptic thinking, and doomsday cults.
As seen last week in TBL, alleged scientific authorities have predicted the end of the world and civilization as we know them at the hand of pandemics, environmental catastrophes, and otherwise over and over again.
Consider just a small subset of science’s apocalyptic literature, some of it truly reality-based, and much of it all too current. According to some remarkable geological evidence, an asteroid roughly six miles in width collided with our Earth about 65 million years ago. The impact created a huge explosion and a crater more than 100 miles wide. Debris from the explosion was catapulted into the atmosphere, severely altering the climate, and leading to the extinction of most species that existed at that time, including the dinosaurs.
Perhaps coincidentally, an asteroid the size of a moving van shot past Earth last month, missing us by 2,200 miles. A rare green comet that last passed through our solar system 50,000 years ago traveled within about 26 million miles of Earth on Wednesday, harmlessly zipping by at blistering speed.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring described in powerful detail the consequences of ecological degradation. Carson shone a light on poisons from insecticides, weed killers, and other common products as well as the use of sprays in agriculture and how they impacted human lives and the environment. It led to real action – most prominently the banning of DDT – and is perhaps the founding document of the environmental movement.
In 2017, New York magazine published its most-read article ever, a piece of extinction porn entitled “The Uninhabitable Earth” about the world ending due to climate change. Note the opening sentence: “It is, I promise, worse than you think.” The opening section is headlined as “Doomsday,” with later sections covering such uplifting topics as “Heat Death,” “The End of Food,” “Climate Plagues,” “Unbreathable Air,” “Perpetual War,” “Permanent Economic Collapse,” and “Poisoned Oceans.”
Scientific American added to the fun by speculating on several other ways that the world as we know it might end.
“The level of disruption required to keep us at a temperature anywhere below ‘absolutely catastrophic’ is fundamentally, on a deep structural level, incompatible with the status quo,” the writer Phil McDuff has argued. The climate crisis, the Green New Deal advocate Naomi Klein has insisted, “could be the best argument progressives have ever had” to roll back corporate influence, tear up free-trade deals, and reinvest in public services and infrastructure.
Kathryn Schultz won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2015 piece in The New Yorker, “an elegant scientific narrative of the rupturing of the Cascadia fault line, a masterwork of environmental reporting and writing.” Schulz reported that we are overdue for a mega-quake that arrives every few hundred years or so along the Washington coast that will likely cause the worst natural disaster in North American history. She also details our woeful lack of preparedness for such a quake and quotes a FEMA official who said the agency operates under the assumption that everything west of Interstate 5 in the Pacific Northwest would be “toast” following the quake’s resulting tsunami.
However, Schultz is careful to point out that the next such “big one” could be hundreds of years away. That is a crucial point because, even in science, when analysis moves to forecasting – like human forecasting generally – it is not usually any good. Nobel laureate Richard Feynman is reported to have said, “Imagine how much harder physics would be if electrons had feelings!”
The universe and its component parts are far too complicated and nonlinear to offer ready predictability. In other words, the world is far messier and less predictable than we think and desperately want to believe. We always know less than we think and assume. Information is cheap; meaning is expensive.
Even when performing careful analytical, evidence-based work, we are and remain biased, ideological, and inherently tribal. Thus, alleged scientific authorities have predicted the end of the world and civilization as we know them at the hand of pandemics, environmental catastrophes, and otherwise over and over again. Yet we are still here, at least for now.
It isn’t just scientists, either.
We are all natural-born and equal opportunity extremists who want to live in exceptional times.
Culture, popular and otherwise is awash in the apocalyptic. Art, movies, sci-fi, dystopian literature, comic books, graphic novels, television, radio, and even literary fiction employ such themes and narratives extensively – and don’t get me started on the internet. The media loves its disasters, the bigger the better, which (of course) provide great ratings. We humans are attracted to doom, boom, and gloom like moths to a flame.
Indeed, throughout much of popular culture, it always seems to be the end times. The warring kingdoms of Westeros refused to recognize the threat of the White Walkers. The authorities will not take action before the contagion has time to spread. The monsters who walk among us and threaten us are our fellow human beings; soon enough, we will all be monsters, too. James Bond may stop the evil Blofeld and superheroes may always save the world, but sometimes the apocalypse is all too real.
I recently received my weekly email from The New Yorker, highlighting stories from that esteemed periodical that I should read. Two of the six promoted were of this genre. One envisions a post-human world while the other reviews a television show as post-catastrophe travelogue.
Sometimes the world ends with a bang; sometimes with a whimper (with apologies to T.S. Eliot). Apocalyptic imagery seems to be increasing and evolving. The apocalypse has never come (it hasn’t yet, anyway, or at least not entirely), but it is always with us. We are transfixed by and permeated with doom.
Politics also lives and breathes doomsday scenarios. Every election is the most important of our time and cast as a morality tale with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Every favored candidate is necessary to stave off annihilation. Every opponent is the antichrist, at least figuratively. Every election is a “Flight 93 election.”
We always live in the shadow of the apocalypse. Some of the threats are real. Most are overdone. Too many are utterly fanciful. Many are just for fun and designed to grab our attention.
If we make enough predictions, we should eventually get one right.
And lots of careers have been made by being right once in a row.
The world we live in is profoundly complex and is much more difficult for us to navigate than we usually think or assume. According to Kahneman, “[w]e systematically underestimate the amount of uncertainty to which we’re exposed, and we are wired to underestimate the amount of uncertainty to which we are exposed.” Accordingly, “we create an illusion of the world that is much more orderly than it actually is.” It is that illusion to causes many mistaken conclusions, conclusions we (and even scientists) hold onto far too long.
It is axiomatic that the more strongly someone is convinced of something, the harder it is to change his or her mind. Accordingly, scientists – despite their ostensible commitment to the idea that new or better evidence can always suggest a different conclusion – are as prone to holding on to a mistaken view as any ideologue. Their determination that their interpretation of the evidence is objectively established (together with standard issue optimism bias, confirmation bias, and the like) can make them as hardened against reality as any other zealot. As the great physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman famously stressed, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”
The idea that the world is better than it was and can get better still fell out of favor among a certain academic class long ago. In The Idea of Decline in Western History, for example, the Smithsonian’s Arthur Herman argues that prophets of doom are central to the liberal arts curriculum: Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Cornel West, and the eco-pessimists noted above. Herman laments a “grand recessional” of “the luminous exponents” of Enlightenment humanism, the ones who believed that “since people generate conflicts and problems in society, they can also resolve them.”
In History of the Idea of Progress, the late sociologist Robert Nisbet of Columbia made a similar point.
“The skepticism regarding Western progress that was once confined to a very small number of intellectuals in the 19th century has grown and spread to not merely the large majority of intellectuals in this final quarter of the century, but to many millions of other people in the West.”
We should all recall the insidious incentives supporting bold predictions, most notably potential fame, funding and influence, especially because there seems to be no accountability for being wrong. The list of alleged scientific “facts” that turned out not to be is a distressingly long one.
As I have argued repeatedly, on our best days, when wearing the right sort of spectacles, squinting and tilting our heads just so, we can be observant, efficient, loyal, assertive truth-tellers. However, on most days, all too much of the time, we are delusional, lazy, partisan, arrogant confabulators (even the best rationalists among us). This problem manifests itself in our attempts as a society to try to cut through the projections of doom to deal effectively with very real risks and problems we face, environmental and otherwise.
As Noah Smith has recently explained, extreme projections of recent trends tend not to come true. As described in detail last week, Paul Ehrlich was right that what’s unsustainable tends to stop, but it needn’t stop with catastrophe. Ehrlich’s simplistic projections ignored “all the various countermeasures that people will take against emerging problems, and all the ways they’ll adapt to new conditions. Countermeasures and adaptations act as a dampening force, slowing down the trend lines before catastrophe hits – sometimes, though not always, slowing it enough to avoid catastrophe entirely.”
Much of America’s intelligentsia dismisses the promise of technology and scientific advance, denigrating it as “solutionism.” Economists, for their part, fear a long-term technological stagnation, postulating that we had picked most of the available low-hanging fruit of innovation. And then Covid happened. Cutting-edge technology sustained us through the dark days of the pandemic and ultimately defeated it through amazing vaccines and treatments. Advances in biotech are astonishing. Meanwhile, the long-term menace of climate change finally appears capable of remedy, thanks in large measure to a near-miraculous explosion in green energy tech.
The conceit behind the terrific indie film, Safety Not Guaranteed, involves the words of the title being found in a mysterious classified ad in a local paper seeking a partner for time travel. The ad also states that applicants will need their own weapons and, ominously, “safety not guaranteed.”
That’s a pretty good metaphor for investing and for life in general.
We know from behavioral research that we are highly risk-averse — we feel loss more than two times as strongly as we feel comparable gain. We crave safety. But safety can never be completely guaranteed.
In investing – the focus of my day job – safety is never guaranteed. On the other hand, by taking insufficient investment risk (in the sense of our potential to lose money), we run the (somewhat different) risks of not meeting our goals, of not being able to live as well in retirement as we would like, or of not leaving the legacy we desire. When we come at things from a different angle, it’s easy to recognize that even if/when we have it, safety is not enough. We need more than safety and provision. We need meaning.
Steve Jobs emphasized this in his famous Stanford commencement address.
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
It is easy to be paralyzed by risk — to fail to make the trade, or decide not to go with the start-up, or not to have the guts to ask the girl out. These failings don’t make us or keep us safe. Safety is never guaranteed. Life (like investing) isn’t tame any more than Aslan the great lion in the Narnia stories is tame.
When Lucy inquires about Aslan (in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), “Is he – quite safe?,” Mr. Beaver offers a penetrating reply.
“Safe? …Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
It’s true about Aslan, investing, and life – safety not guaranteed. Yet here we are, still here, at least so far.
Totally Worth It
Over the past 75 years, Punxsutawney Phil has correctly predicted whether there will be an early spring 69 percent of the time. That’s a record pretty much every stock analyst would envy. It also proves that being able to distinguish between luck and skill can take a lot longer than we expect. Yesterday, Phil saw his shadow. So, six more weeks of winter … maybe.
Feel free to contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright) and let me know what you like, what you don’t like, what you’d like to see changed, and what you’d add. Praise, condemnation, and feedback are always welcome.
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Last week’s liturgical calendar included an observance for Zygmunt Pisarski, a victim of the Nazis. Father Zygmunt was the priest of a Polish parish that had been persecuted by communists before the war. When the Germans arrived, the Gestapo wanted to know who those communists were. The good Father, knowing that the communists would be murdered if he named them, refused to tell the Germans what they wanted to know, and so they shot him. He died to save the lives of those who hated and reviled him, who would have done to him what the Gestapo did and probably worse had they been given half a chance.
You may hit some paywalls below; most can be overcome here.
This is the best thing I saw this week. The loveliest. The coolest. The Boomerest. The funniest, unless it was this, or this. The spookiest. The most incredible (by my friend, John Wilkens). The most important. The most interesting. The most insightful. The most ridiculous. The most troublesome. The most absurd. The most humane. The most obvious. The best thread. “You know how rogues do?” Bad start. Wordplay. Interpretive differences. Wild randomness. Future cringe? Perhaps promising. The food expiration dates you should follow. I’m a big believer in markets, so I was surprised to see that the market for books would support two Pamela Anderson memoirs. The last mustard maker in Dijon. Billy Joel has jazz chops. Convenience is the bait. RIP, John Adams. RIP, Billy Packer. RIP, Dr. Jack ReVelle.
Everyone in financial services (at least) should read this.
I lost my brother last week. He lived a good and full life. You can read a bit of our story here.
Please send me your nominations for this space to rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or via Twitter (@rpseawright).
The TBL Spotify playlist, made up of the songs featured here, now includes nearly 250 songs and about 17 hours of great music. I urge you to listen in, sing along, and turn up the volume.
This week’s benediction features Psalm 117 and honors the 400th anniversary of the death of William Byrd, one of England's finest composers.
Now unto Him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever.
Thanks for reading.
Issue 140 (February 3, 2023)