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Apocalypse Soon

Mark Milke: Environmental doomsayers scratch a persistent cultural itch in the West, but ignore significant progress on many fronts.
Doomsayers have been a constant in Western cultures for generations. (Glynnis Jones /

When 16-year-old environmentalist Greta Thunberg spoke to the United Nations recently, prophesying the world would soon end because of climate change and also scolded world leaders—"You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words”—I recalled hearing this “Repent! The end is near” sermon once before.

Back when I was a kid, I biked to a friend’s house one lazy Sunday afternoon. I overheard his parents and their friends in some adjoining room listening to a preacher rain down verbal fire and brimstone upon those listening to the cassette tape (it was the 1970s).

They seemed quite enthused over it. They offered the occasional “amen” and endorsed the street pastor’s voluminous condemnation of multiple evils of modern life. If I recall properly, I think one was rock ‘n roll. He also predicted American cities would soon become hellholes of crime and violence if Americans did not change their ways.

The pastor/preacher, David Wilkerson, was well known in some evangelical Christian circles, because of previous laudable and challenging work on the streets of New York City. Beginning in the 1960s, Wilkerson worked with heroin addicts among others, starting a recovery centre and a street church.

I share this story not to condemn a specific strain of one faith, or to mock the young Swede. Far from it.

Any preacher who works with drug addicts has redeeming qualities, no matter the later Old Testament approach to human civilization. As for Thunberg, Brendan Clarke in the U.K.-based journal Spiked nailed the problem best when he wrote: “any adult who cheered Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN yesterday should be ashamed of themselves. Her emotional rant was a deeply disturbing spectacle. It revealed a young woman, a girl, in essence, who is in the grip of terror, of a morbid, debilitating belief that life as we know it is coming to an end.”

We should feel sorry for Thunberg – she’s obviously scared. That’s the fault of adults who are themselves irresponsible doomsayers.

I recount both jeremiads because I always wondered why people would take a Sunday afternoon off to be yelled at. Or to invite the same at the United Nations—and here I am critical not of Thunberg, but those who invited her—from someone just starting out in life. The reality is that when young (me, you, everyone) people lack life experience, and unless they’re early readers of history, also lack historical context. Add scary tales from adults and that makes the young predisposed to black-and-white, end-of-the-world thinking.

While much of the modern West is irreligious compared to our ancestors—and thus such negative preachers are as strange as assuming Zeus is mad at you—Old Testament-type preaching and cries that the world is evil and will soon end have not gone away. That impulse has, as Thunberg demonstrates, simply been adopted by others. Often in service of environmental causes.

This is not new. I’ve been noticing this for years. Some personality types are predisposed to think the world is always coming to an end. It’s Armageddon, 24-7, 365 days a year. This seems particularly true of some—and emphasize some and not all—British Columbia activists.

An example. I have an issue of Maclean’s from 2013 with David Suzuki on the cover and the headline, quoting him, “Environmentalism has failed.”

In the interview, Suzuki gave his best imitation of laments from Jonah to Jeremiah: “things are getting worse, not better.”

Likewise, other individuals and organizations from Tzeporah Berman to Greenpeace raise money on the notion that humanity and the Earth are headed towards Armageddon.

The problem is that the fiery condemnations are increasing – despite and in contrast to early environmental concerns, battles, and policies that have actually made the world better.

For example, consider the industrial pollution that destroyed habitats and made life nasty in cities. In 1878, a passenger ship sunk after a collision on the Thames River in London, the Daily Telegraph described how at least some of the 600 passengers who died might have survived – except as some swam to shore, they were overcome "by the noxious cocktail of pollution in the water."

As of 1957, that river was biologically dead, but was revived by an intensive environmental program and improved technology. Now herons and seals frolic near Canary Wharf.

Or consider forest cover, which has been recovering for decades. Human Progress estimates that China, Europe and North America have all gained forest cover in the last three decades: 511,800 more square kilometres in China; 212,122 more in Europe; and 64,410 square kilometres gained in North America.

Or ponder Los Angeles and how it was once choked by smog that far exceeded today’s levels. But how technological advances and environmental reforms (you need the first to have the second) has improved L.A. air quality beyond anything imaginable when I briefly lived there in the late 1980s. This has occurred despite massive population growth in Los Angeles and in California.

There are still many environmental concerns; plastic and garbage in the oceans are obvious examples. But there, with concerns over carbon emissions—the real issues driving the pessimism from the Thunberg-Suzuki-Berman jeremiads of condemnation—the most significant progress is not going to occur by damning modern, urban Western nations where much progress has already been made.

It will come from getting energy (yes, including natural gas and electricity) to African parents so forests are not chopped up at the same rate. It will come from replacing carbon-intensive coal-fired electricity stations in China and India where carbon emissions far exceed energy-producing and energy-needing sparsely populated Canada. (It’s cold here; we will always require more fuel for that reason alone.)

Most of the bang for the carbon reduction buck has already occurred in Western nations; any at-home reforms will have a marginal effect in comparison to reductions in Asia.

Of course, such pragmatic approaches to the environment and realities will never satisfy the prophets. They have little faith in human adaptability and technology to create a better world.

They prefer to rail against humanity.

Mark Milke is an independent public policy analyst. His newest book, The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations, will be released in October.