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Doom & Gloom

· 3 March 2014 |  by Maarten
· Published in: English texts · FOCUS · wetenschap  |  1 Comment
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Doom thinking

Recently I’ve been tempted to introduce a tag called “doom thinking”, and label quite a few of my books with it (see some candidates on the right). Here’s why I didn’t.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is the prime example of the type of book I had in mind for “doom thinking”. One of its opening quotes alone may illustrate why:

I am pessimistic about the human race because it is too ingenious for its own good. Our approach to nature is to beat it into submission. We would stand a better chance of survival if we accommodated ourselves to this planet and viewed it appreciatively instead of skeptically and dictatorially.
— E. B. White

Even the title itself hauntingly refers to a doom scenario, brought on by our DDTs, PCBs, and other toxins: “There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example — where had they gone? […] The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices.” It would be hard to find a gloomier vision than this.

How about Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff?
“Our obsession with stuff is trashing the planet, our communities and our health,” it claims. It points out how each of the steps in our current consumption model — extraction, production, distribution, consumption, disposal — creates massive waste, health problems, and social inequality. Likewise, David Strahan’s The Last Oil Shock predicts “the imminent extinction of petroleum man”, Richard Heinberg’s Peak Everything asks us to “wake up to the century of decline”, and, famously, the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth says that our whole society will go (or worse, is going) into overshoot, after which a crash will be inevitable. And of course, the elephant in the doom room is climate change. Even just the cover of Six Degrees by Mark Lynas brings the message vividly enough.

If the word “doom” does not yet come to mind, then at least “pessimism”. Are these authors engaging in doom thinking, though? Playing into a certain market for people who want to read it’s going bad, bad, bad with the world?

Pessimist or realist?

No: what these works set out to do is to paint a picture of reality, to gather scientific results that have something relevant to say about where we humans may be headed. The fact that those pictures are gloomy may very well make these works realistic rather than pessimistic, unfortunately.

The trouble is, even if these authors are not engaging in doom thinking, we readers — you — may very easily enter that pitfall. I am no psychologist, but I know at least of two ways this may happen. First of all, you might confuse these potential future scenarios on a global scale with descriptions of your seemingly inescapable personal future, or that of your children. Secondly, you might feel personal responsibility for these global problems, be it for creating or perpetuating them, or for resolving them. I know I am moralizing, but please recognize the pitfalls in these feelings. You are one. The world is seven billion.

That being said, I should return to the books themselves. Whether you label them pessimist or realist, I think we should agree they are important. We should at least credit them with pointing out risks that are grave enough to be taken very seriously indeed, even by the doubters. So my point is: these books deserve better than to be labeled with “doom thinking”.1

Let me leave you with a positive note, from the introduction to my 2008 edition of the amazingly uplifting Cradle to Cradle:

Early agriculturalists accepted “the law of return”, which simply meant that the farmer should try to repay the earth for what he took from it. But he did not sit at his fireside and chew his nails, asking himself whether he got the best of the bargain. It was not a “law” which worried him — it was just clearly the right thing to do. Cradle to Cradle is a law of returns but with materials rather than food-crops. Of course, materials science is harder than farming, but we can do it.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff

David Strahan, The Last Oil Shock

Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything

Alan Weisman, The World Without Us

Donella H. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, Dennis Meadows; Limits to Growth

Tim Flannery, The Weather Makers

Mark Lynas, Six Degrees

Tim Jackson, Welvaart zonder groei

Penelope ReVelle and Charles ReVelle, The Global Environment

Michael Braungart & William McDonough, Cradle to Cradle

  1. I’ve settled on the neutral and hopefully more descriptive term “wereldproblematiek,” (“world problems”), but if you have a better suggestion, let me know!

One Comment

  1. Janantoon says:

    Maarten, ik denk dat ‘wereldproblematiek’ een vlag is die meer dekt dan wat jij hier bedoelt. Ik denk zo direct aan enkele wereldproblemen: ondervoeding, demografische explosie, analfabetisme, corruptie, digitale kloof, etc. Klimaatopwarming is ook niet meer zo adequaat, het gaat meer over ontwrichting. Een betere tag ben ik je nog schuldig.