Rational optimism and the apocalypse that wasn’t

The appointed hour came, but the heavens didn’t cooperate. End-times prophet Harold Camping may be disappointed, but he’s got his game face on. Now he’s saying that the world will actually end in October. Working in the software industry, I can appreciate this kind of thing. It happens all the time. It’s just a slip in the schedule. Somebody in Rapture Quality Control found a serious problem with the Fire and Brimstone Sequencer, and they just need another six months, okay? So just chill out people. It’s not like it’s the end of the world.

As a prophet with bad timing, the Reverend Camping can take comfort in one thing: he’s got plenty of company. During the mid-nineteenth century, America was riddled with End Timers and millennialists. The most prominent of these were the so-called Millerites, and when October 22nd, 1844 passed mildly into October 23rd, the result was known as the Great Disappointment. A curious name, considering the world didn’t end, but there you go.

It all put me in mind of a book I recently read called The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. In it, Ridley takes everything you’re worried about, global warming, peak oil, killer bees, toenail fungus, and lays out the case that the situation isn’t nearly as dire as you’ve been led to believe. In fact, it’s pretty good. I appreciate the fact that Ridley just goes for it. He doesn’t shuffle his feet or qualify his words. No, in a loud voice he says that irresponsible people are making you feel terrible because humans in general and journalists in particular have an insanely powerful negative bias. Bad news is good business. But if you look at the facts he’s assembled, a few things jump out: almost everything you can name is getting better and cheaper, we’re really terrible at predicting the future, and we are secretly thrilled by the thought that the world may end on our watch. If history is any guide, we do not live at a pivotal moment in history, even though it’s fun to think so.

The book is good, and I also enjoyed this conversation with Stewart Brand over at the Long Now Foundation. Ridley is not a crank, and he is often persuasive. I find it hard to believe that we shouldn’t be so worried about global warming, but Ridley can point to a long list of disasters that never happened. And in any event, his thesis is not that we shouldn’t try to solve the problems we face; rather we shouldn’t be so damned gloomy about our prospects.

Perhaps his influence will cause us to stop trumpeting about Peak Indium, Peak Platinum, and Peak Peanut Butter. Perhaps we are already Post Peak Peak.

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