Friday, January 01, 2010

Apocalypse: Then and Now

Dennis Dutton, a philosophy professor from New Zealand, remembers New Years day ten years ago:
Y2K problems would not be limited to mainframe computers that governed the information systems of the modern world, but were going to affect millions of tiny computer chips found everywhere. Thanks to these wonky microprocessors, elevators would die, G.P.S. devices would stop working and dishwashers would dry the food onto the plates before trying to rinse it off. Even ordinary cars might spontaneously accelerate to fatal, uncontrollable speeds, with brakes failing to respond.

The Y2K catastrophe was promoted with increasing shrillness toward century’s end: headlines proclaimed a “computer time bomb” or “a date with disaster.” Vanity Fair’s January 1999 article “The Y2K Nightmare” caught the sensationalist tone, claiming that “folly, greed and denial” had “muffled two decades of warnings from technology experts.”
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Even the skeptics that didn't buy it were deemed to be deniers and ostracized:
Among the most reviled of the Y2K deniers was Bill Gates, who not only declared that Microsoft’s PCs would take the date turnover in stride, but had the audacity to blame those who “love to tell tales of fear” for the worldwide anxiety. Mr. Gates’s denialism was ignored as governments and corporations set in place immensely expensive schemes to immunize systems against the Y2K bug.
This is precisely the same scenario we are now presented with by global warming climate change. Then, as now, we are told it is the end of civilization, and the problem can only be solved by spending inordinate sums of money. So, many governments dutifully spent their money upgrading their systems, only to see countries that had largely ignored the coming catastrophe survive just fine:
However, exactly 10 years ago today, as the date change moved on through the Far East, India, Russia, the Middle East and Europe, it became apparent that it made little difference whether you lived in Britain, which at great expense had revamped many of its computer systems, or the lackadaisical Ukraine, which had ignored the issue.

With minor glitches that would have gone unnoticed any other day of the week, the world kept ticking on. It must have been galling for computer-conscientious Germans to observe how life continued its pleasurable path for feckless Italians, who had generally paid no attention to Y2K.
The author points out that this fear of being destroyed by our own civilization has been around since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Ten years ago, I bought into the hype, stockpiling gasoline, food, and cash, just in case the pumps, cash registers, and ATMs didn't work on January 1st. This year, I joining Bill Gates in the denier's camp, and the climategate emails seem to point to yet another Chicken Little scenario. The author concludes:
Apocalyptic scenarios are a diversion from real problems — poverty, terrorism, broken financial systems — needing intelligent attention. Even something as down-to-earth as the swine-flu scare has seemed at moments to be less about testing our health care system and its emergency readiness than about the fate of a diseased civilization drowning in its own fluids. We wallow in the idea that one day everything might change in, as St. Paul put it, the “twinkling of an eye” — that a calamity might prove to be the longed-for transformation. But turning practical problems into cosmic cataclysms takes us further away from actual solutions.

This applies, in my view, to the towering seas, storms, droughts and mass extinctions of popular climate catastrophism. Such entertaining visions owe less to scientific climatology than to eschatology, and that familiar sense that modernity and its wasteful comforts are bringing us closer to a biblical day of judgment. As that headline put it for Y2K, predictions of the end of the world are often intertwined with condemnations of human “folly, greed and denial.” Repent and recycle!
Just in my lifetime, we have been told by "experts" that we face certain overpopulation, global starvation, nuclear winter, a new ice age (from global cooling), and Y2K. None, not by a single one, has come to pass.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home