A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Our Christmas message: the sin of presentism and the state of fear.....

Mary ShelleyA volcano erupts killing 92,000 people. Drastic climate change afflicts Europe, laying waste to summer. Some 200,000 people die from hunger and cold. Frosts end in June and begin again in August. Mighty storms, unleashing abnormally-high amounts of rainfall, lead to severe flooding on many rivers, including the Rhine. War has just finished. The dreadful summer is compounded by post-war famine and dearth. There are food riots in Britain and France, violence in Switzerland. Grain warehouses are looted. In New England, people lose their livelihoods, and Joseph Smith Sr., the father of the Mormon founder, is forced to move his family, including the young Joseph (aged 11), from Vermont. High levels of ash produce glowering, spectacular sunsets around the world, which affect the palettes of painters like J.M.W. Turner. Mary Shelley, John William Polidori, and their friends are forced to stay in doors for much of their Swiss holiday, resulting in Shelley'’s Frankenstein and Polidori's The Vampyre.....

All is gloom and doom; "Is this the ending of the world?"

Sound familiar? But this was 1816, the Year without a Summer, not 2005.

The media are desperate to tell us that the year 2005 was the annus horribilis of all anni horribiles. It is, of course, bunkum, but such wanton pessimism reflects the curse of nearly every age - the sin of presentism - namely, the abiding conviction that everything about the present age is more wicked and more doom-laden than anything in the preceding eras of human existence.

In reality, of course, 2005 does not enter the top league of anni horribiles, and, even if we include the tragic Boxing Day Asian tsunami of 2004, this remains true. Just recall, for example, these selected disaster statistics for the first three-quarters of the C20 alone:

1900 - India: up to 3.5 million killed, drought and famine;
1917 - Typhus Fever (1917-22), Russia: up to 3 million deaths;
1918 - 'Spanish Flu' (H1N1): >25 million deaths (possibly 50 million);
1921 - Soviet Union (1921-22): up to 5 million killed, drought and famine;
1923 - Great Kanto Plain Earthquake (Yokohama, Tokyo): 140,000 killed;
1928 - N.W. China (1928-39): >3 million killed, drought and famine;
1931 - Huang He Flood, China: up to 4 million killed;
1936 - Sichuan, Hebei, China: 5 million killed, drought and famine;
1941 - Sichuan Province, China: 2.5 million killed, famine (plus war);
1957 - 'Asian Flu' (H2N2 and H3N2) (1957-58): >1 million deaths;
1965 - India (1965-67): 1.5 million killed, drought and famine;
1970 - Bhola Cyclone, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh): >500,000 killed;
1975 - Henan Province, China: floods kill more than 200,000;
1976 - Tangshan Earthquake, China: 242,149 killed.....

And, if you want a truly devastating earthquake, you might consider 1556 and the Shaanxi Earthquake in China, which, at the lower population densities of the C16, still killed a dramatic 830,000 people.

Despite, therefore, the genuine human tragedies associated with Hurricane Katrina and with the Himalayan earthquake, no 2005 tragedy has come anywhere near to matching the virulence of past events, not even in their own categories of disaster.

Yet, to employ the title of Michael Crichton's important novel, we indulge a 'state of fear', daily whipped up, knowingly, by politicians and the media.

I think it is now time to call a halt to this pernicious and deliberate peddling of fear. Newspapers like The Independent devalue the currency of past human disasters with their daily diet of doom - "I will do such things - what they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth." At one and the same time, such self-inflicted pessimism is an insult to all those who have died and suffered in the many natural disasters of the past and it denies the brilliance of human adaptability to change and disaster.

The Christian story of the birth of a child in a manger is itself hemmed in with disaster, from the killing of the innocents to the nailing of a grown man onto a rough wooden cross in an occupied land. Suffering is at the very epicentre of the existence of humanity on Earth. Enlightenment thinking has never claimed to be able to answer the mighty question of suffering, but it does unravel the long truth of an ever-restless and dangerous Earth. And the cross, for Christians, is the ultimate symbol of empathy with, and triumph over, suffering, not a sign of despair. The women who wept at its foot were the first to experience a resurrection of hope.

Today, much of the world lives longer and better than at any previous period in history. It is the duty of those of us so blessed to aid humanity still afflicted by our restless Earth to achieve similar levels of progress and safety. Despair, and the wilful loss of hope, under such riches is a sin. Failed political states compound many times the toll of death, while trying to take us back to a non-existent 'Golden Age' (when disasters killed the poor in millions) is a dangerous conceit.

Promoting states of fear has become the self-indulgence of a spoilt and pampered North. It is the external expression of the sin of presentism, and it is time to lay to rest the Frankensteins and Vampyres that sap our will.

And, finally, if you want a Christmas present to counter all this and bring tears to the eyes, I must recommend the guttingly hilarious: The Book of Bunny Suicides (Hodder & Stoughton: ISBN: 0340828994).

Christmas wreathPhilip, my warmest "Good Wishes" to all 'EnviroSpin' visitors at this festive time and for a 2006 in which we regain a true sense of human (and climate) history. A toast to you all! "God bless us, every one!" [The image of Mary Shelley is in the public domain - from Wikipedia; the lovely Christmas wreath is courtesy of Animation Factory.]

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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