By ANDREW C. REVKIN
That REM lyric has come to mind several times in recent days as the occasional friend or Dot Earth reader has described the spate of devastating floods, heat waves and fires, giant icebergs and other disruptive events as a sign that some momentous unraveling is beginning.
In one such conversation, I mused on whether this perception, in fact, is simply the result of the global media and World Wide Web distilling all of human existence into a super-concentrated 24/7 digital elixir of alarm. After all, in 1929, the last time the Indus River had floods as devastating as those experienced in recent days, this is what the news looked like (in The Times at least):
Researchers in the social sciences have explored the relationship of media exposure to attitudes and fears before, with the answer being a qualified yes, as in this 2005 study, “News Media Use and Perceptions of Global Threat.” I’ve sent out a query to a batch of scientists working on this question and will report back. Some commentators have posited that humans have what almost amounts to a deep-rooted desire for apocalypse that shapes our reactions to events and warnings.
When looked at with a lens taking in the full flow of history, of course, people’s lives are getting better, the proportion of the human population dying young or slaughtered or savaged has steadily dropped.
Does this mean we should just party on, disregarding scientists’ warnings about the long-term consequences of the intensifying human growth spurt?
Indeed, I’m convinced that Stuart Hart of Cornell University was right when he addressed the Clinton Global Initiative meeting last year. He described the concept of chronocentrism — a tendency for every generation to feel that its time is uniquely momentous; but he asserted that this moment in human history — the next 40 years or so, as our centuries-long pulse of vaulting numbers and appetites crests — is truly special.
The special nature of this juncture, to me, is that three phenomena are cresting simultaneously: our impacts on the planet, our ability to observe and analyze them and our ability to disseminate resulting ideas and impressions instantly, from a satellite camera or supercomputer to a TV screen in Illinois or a mobile phone in Punjab.
But we’ve developed these capacities far faster than we’ve figured out how to respond to them — both in filtering information that, while scary or sexy, distracts from more meaningful, but subtle, trends, and developing the discipline to recognize human traits that cause us to ignore important, but less flamboyant, clues pointing to a promising path of least regret.
This time it is true we are in the end of the world as we know it. The good news is we will have a new and promising new world. Tyranny and injustice will be replaced by justice and equality. Imperialism will be changed to honest capitalism. The small guy will be equal to the richest. I will not have to work every day so the empire take my money to buy new fatal war machine to eradicate people for the false promise of freedom as did the lawless George Bush and his gang.