Just in case you failed to notice: The world did not end on December 21, 2012
Published on: January 2, 2013
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  • Gary Novak

    Organizations often restrict the distribution of knowledge on a need-to-know basis. Does anyone need to know when the world will end? The advantage of saving on oil changes hardly seems a compelling need. Matthew 24:36 says: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” All we need to know is that it is foolish to say, “My lord delayeth his coming” (so that, like the young Augustine, we can want to get holy, but not yet). If our task and our joy in this life are to love God and neighbor as well as we can, it seems that even the desire to know the end-date could be nothing but a distraction in the achievement of that end.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Declinism, the ideology that the world is in decline, always seems to be in vogue when nations go through growing budget deficits and debts. Unless I’m incorrect, the current U.S. “fiscal cliff” is the result of growth — projected at 4 per cent per annum and government revenue forecasts to match — which have fallen to around 1 per cent. So slow growth is a decline, or shall we say, a cliff?

    I have noted in an Amazon.com review of the book “Running Out of Water: The Looming Crisis and Solutions to Conserve Our Most Precious Resource” by Susan Leal and Peter Rogers, that we are not running out of water. Having worked by the nation’s largest non-federal water district for 20 years, I soaked in some knowledge about water in California.

    California is considered a state in perpetual drought. But in 1998 – a wet year – rainfall and imports totaled 335 million acre-feet of water or enough water for 670 million urban households or about 1.675 billion people; or 335 million acres of farming. And 64% of this water went to the environment, not farms, not industry not cities or suburbs. And agriculture and industry, not urban cities, conserved 6.65 million acre-feet of water or enough for 13.3 million urban households or 6.65 million acres of farming. In a dry year in California such as 2001 there was “only” 145 million acre-feet of rainfall and imports, or enough for 290 million urban households or 145 million acres of farming (source: Cal State University Stanislaus). The problem is capture, storage and treatment, not drought, not waste, the amount of water by used agriculture, global warming, and not necessarily population growth.

    This hasn’t deterred declinist authors, however. I have noted at least ten recent books by major publishers on water shortages.

    In brief, droughts are man made in California. Dr. Berger would perhaps say they are a “social construction.” So even the lens by which we perceive the physical world is affected by declinism.

    Berger has written about the sociology of “bad faith:” or viewing something that is man made as something that comes from nature; or from some man-made “global warming” as a result of industrialism and Capitalism. Does our pessimism come from failure of our modern entitlement society to meet utopian expectations?

    As Berger points out, however, “when prophecies fail,” erroneous beliefs don’t get weaker but often get stronger among the leaders of any organization. I believe we have experienced this in California when “global warming” was debunked and then social cognition shifted to the concept of “climate change.” There is plenty of government grant funding for declinism to make sure the welfare state is liquid.

    Historian Arthur Herman points out in his book “The Idea of Decline in Western History,” the pessimism of progressives such as the Unabomber, Al Gore, Noam Chomsky, or Edward Said, sprang from their view of the world as a whole or system created by impersonal forces such as class, gender, race, nation, or technology. Both sociologist Herbert Spencer and psychologist Sigmund Freud viewed society and the human psyche respectively as machines and “pressure cookers.” But if society is not an organism then the future is not the result of the law of Progress, or necessarily, degeneracy. Rather, we can still shape our destiny.

  • Berger again teases out curiosities that are at the heart of the discussion of how do we get from here (2013) to there (foreseeable future and beyond), and by what North Star (think ideology, religious values, public policy framework) do we follow, and what sacrifices will we make to achieve that future salvation (think of the human sacrfices required by public policies and ask how these policies pass/fail what Berger calls “calculi of meaning and pain).

    There are five major salvation themes, in my view, three rising from the Bible and two rising from the Enlightenment, as Berger has pointed out in his work. Thus I particularly enjoyed Berger listing the three great salvation themes after terrible eschatological events of the three Abrahamic faiths (the Jewish coming of the Messiah, the Christian Second Coming of Jesus, and the establishment of the universal rule of Islam by the Mahdi). The two from the Enlightenment are Marxism and true socialism (with its heaven on earth), and, although it has no comparable salvific base or heavenly future, yet, in my view, it will eventually “reign” and become the acceptable “way” after all of the dust settles, whether in my lifetime or not, social democratic capitalist development. Russia and China have already signed on to the capitalist part

    Berger’s admonition of “newly fashionable atheists” to stop smirking was spot on, as their beliefs are just as faith based as the most religious and ideological fundamentalists and relativists, all of whom struggle with overcoming their own cognitive dissonance as they attempt to “keep the faith” and proselytize to get others to “convert”/”alternate” to their faith belief.

    The newest kids on the block are warming/climate change believers, as Wayne points out, not to mention the newest faith initiative and the belief battles unleashed by “affordable health care” (whether Romneycare, Obamacare, or what the final morphs into). Rather than either side smirking, each should pause, breathe deep, and work together to find a “middle position” that meets an agreed calculi of meaning and pain.

    So-called atheists are only so in terms of transcendence but not in terms of earth bound faiths (pick your academic sub-sub-discipline) or in terms of their ideology or in terms of their being demigods able to make things well/perfect (those who think they can be little Christs and “save” Mother Earth) or the faith of Western one-earthers and their desire to save the world from their heavenly thrones in Brussels. All share a desire for salvation, whether by the Grace of God, their Progressive Good Works, or their god-like ability to create a perfect mother earth.

    And in terms of technology, whether accepting of the transcendent or not, we are all “people of faith” when we walk onto an airplane or roller coaster, a faith primarily in our (“human”) ability create extensions of ourselves (as McLuhan would say) to be god-like and fly.

    Parallel to this is the urge of those without a connection to the divine or transcendent or however you want to frame it, to replace the gods of old with their own godlike selves, especially in terms of climate change (nice, prescient touch of Wayne, noted above, to point out how “global warming” has morphed into “climate change” (which we could say, as a religious curiosity, it has moved from “sect” status to a more acceptable “denomination” status, just by changing the term). Equally interesting in the contest of smirking atheists and their sacred texts of climate change is their also morphing, from blaming mankind (“anthropocentric” causes of the warming sin ) to morph into anthropocentric demigods able to control what happens on earth (not unlike Joshua making the sun stand still).

    I continue to be amused by the growing High Priests of “Last Days if we don’t_______” schools of thought, in which the apocalypse or Armageddon or Mayangedden or however you want to express it, can be delayed or stopped cold by the mere act of the godly thinking and godlike actions of human beings to assure their immortality and earthly salvation.

    The End of times ETAs of the Mayans, the Millerites, and Dorothy Martin may have come and gone, but they have been replaced by the High Priests of science and governance (again think Washington, D.C. and Brussels) and their calculations. It is fascinatingly sad and humorous at the same time to watch these “epistemological elites” engage in their various “cognitive defenses” as their pillars of certitude keep collapsing, forcing them to come up with one “bad faith” pronouncement after another as they “hide behind their roles” while simultaneously having to confront other realities exposing their delusions and their difficulty dealing with “relentless honesty,” especially in dealing with one of the key questions of modernity, Berger’s “what is an acceptable model of development?”

    In a paper in 1972, I wrote that “In the late 1960s, U Thant said that his experience led him to the conviction that the nations of the world have about ten years to determine the policies that would stem the otherwise certain trend toward the extinction of Homo sapiens, if not through war than by environmental destruction.” I also wrote about John Calhoun, whose rat experiments I was privileged to see and discuss with him regarding his concept of the end by over crowding: “Ecologist John Calhoun echoed this thought when, in 1970, he calculated that only 10 or 15 years were left in which to determine and implement the policies necessary to ensure human survival.” And in his “Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore also said there was only ten years to prevent catastrophe. This quest to be like the gods and seek immortality is as old as The Epic of Gilgamish (at least 2000 BCE).

    Which brings me to Berger’s reminder of Alfred Schutz’s insight into the anxiety behind the intrinsically fearful condition of humankind, and his question of what comforting messages can survive the Great Disappointments without indulging in delusional denial, and of what will allay the fear that has “Don’t Abandon!” stamped on whatever belief set they have. The Mayan pyramid, as well as the one at Chulula, have morphed into the modern day ones in Brussels and Washington, D.C., holding out for sacrifices to appease the gods of progress (WW1 and 2 come to mind). But who and/or what are to be sacrificed to these gods of modernity? What delusions will they have to hold on to and who in public discourse will debunk their delusions so that the shared outcomes most share can still be achieved, rather than they be sacrificed too, in the war as to which is the “better” or “one true way” to get to that heaven on earth? For now, it looks like the Great Delusion is “more taxes” to be spent by super bureaucracies to support themselves and their little platoons of non-profit and university bureaus. The “Little Platoons” of people seeking to mediate between the giant bureaus and their own personal lives await their call.

  • Gary Novak

    I’d like to pick up on an issue raised by Mr. Lusvardi. If declinists believe that the planet is being trashed—either by culpably greedy capitalists or by impersonal historical forces—wouldn’t they be heartened by a declining growth rate? In their view, planetary progress requires economic decline. As Marxist ecologist Andre Gorz put it in “Ecology as Politics (1980),” “The point is not to refrain from consuming more and more, but to consume less and less. . . . This is what ecological realism is all about.” A GDP declining from 4% to 1% is progress, but Gorz wouldn’t be happy until it goes negative.

    But his goal is not to save the planet but to abolish capitalism (“survival is not an end in itself”). Many people argue that the market is incapable of taking environmental costs (“externalities”) into account. Gorz disagrees: “But when, after exhausting every means of coercion and deceit, capitalism begins to work its way out of the ecological impasse, it will assimilate ecological necessities as technical constraints, and adapt the conditions of exploitation to them.” His fear is that capitalism WILL take externalities into account and continue to exploit the downtrodden masses. To prevent that, ecology must stop being satisfied with measures that save the planet and insist on measures that are incompatible with capitalism. (Think of Obama deliberately trying to regulate coal miners out of business.) As Gorz’s title confesses, we must think of ecology as politics.

    Arthur Herman’s book on the idea of decline sounds interesting. I liked your review of Berger’s “Accidental Sociologist,” so I think I’ll trust you on this one, too.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Reply to Gary Novak

    Arthur Herman’s book “The Idea of Decline” is more an historical overview of philosophical thought with not much in the way of sociological insights. But it is a worthy book to read.

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