The media had fun, as it periodically does, when a fundamentalist preacher declares the end of the world. But there was a jittery feeling, too, because for the first time since the end of the Cold War, when the world might have ended in nuclear winter, global warming makes secular people feel doomed. There’s a slender hope that climate change may not be as catastrophic as some scientists believe. Yet on the whole nobody denies the buildup of greenhouse gases, while at the same time no one remotely has a viable solution.
How can doom be replaced with a more productive feeling? When I first began posting in 1995, I found myself addressing four global problems that seemed insoluble: over-population, pollution from fossil fuels, pandemic diseases, and refugeeism. Each of these four had their own trajectory, but they seemed equally unstoppable. I didn’t put terrorism on the same level, although many observers might, because there have been waves of terrorist activity that rise and fall. Eventually the iPod would win out over the mullahs. A younger generation of Arabs would want to join the modern world, and by being connected to modernity through cell phones, Facebook, and shared music files, they would prevail over reactionaries in their society. Perhaps the Arab spring indicates that this victory is closer than anyone ever supposed.
But the underlying reason that terrorism is outclassed by the other problems is that it cannot bring the world to an end, whereas these other global problems can. A planet that cannot sustain enough people, that suffocates on oil and coal fumes, that is decimated by disease or made unstable by refugees fleeing from oppression won’t literally end in the sense of Armageddon. But in some way human evolution would move backward. The world has always been caught between progressive and destructive forces — that duality is built into our nature — yet until now most people would agree that progress had the upper hand. Looking into the future, it takes a die-hard optimist to make such a statement today.
The reality is that a world is coming to an end but not the world. I’m thinking of a world where a tiny minority of people, mostly white and Christian, live off the fat of the planet while billions more are dispossessed. That world is ending with the sudden explosive rise of China and India. The same world consumed fossil fuels without restraint. We are just beginning to face the possibility that this appetite must be curbed. Other trends testify to the end of America’s unrivaled power on the world stage, the dominance of the dollar, the ability of the U.S. to use military means without check, and the acceptance of Anglo-Saxon moral values everywhere. In a recent visit to Britain, President Obama spoke of how much the world needed those values. But in reality the moral values that are rising quickly consist of narrow tribalism, crude nationalism (especially evident in Asia), and religious intolerance.
When this world comes to an end, another will replace it. We cannot foresee what that world will look like, just as a colonial officer in India in 1910 could not have foreseen a world without British imperialism. The secret to ending one world is to help the next one be born. Obama has been acting as midwife on many fronts: renewable energy, the end of conflict with the Muslim world, investment in future technologies, and shared military responsibility with allies. Pulling against this are those who dread and hate the end of their world. We run the risk of imploding as reactionary forces, fueling an undercurrent of fear, promote a fantasy of America as a perfect society where privilege is a birthright and the rest of the world exists on a plane almost beneath notice. No one can tell how this conflict will play out. If you parse each problem, even reaching an adult agreement over raising the debt ceiling or fixing Medicare seems impossible. And it may prove to be impossible, in which case the world will still come to an end, but when it does, Americans will be left depleted and left behind by history. We should all be working to make sure that our doomed feelings don’t turn into actual doom, because they don’t have to.