An author with an end-of-the-world tome due out suddenly finds himself panicking
Oh God, am I just being neurotic?
An author with an end-of-the-world tome due out suddenly finds himself panicking
Early in the 2004 U.S. election season, a publisher took me to lunch and pitched me a book. She wanted me to write a John Kerry election diary. Easy gig. All I had to do was follow him around and mock him mercilessly. Well, I hemmed and hawed and eventually she got the picture and said, “Okay, what would you like to write a book about?”
And so I said, “Well, I’ve got this idea for a book called ‘The End Of The World.’ ” And there was a pause and I could feel her metaphorically backing out of the room, and shortly thereafter she literally backed out of the room. But not before telling me, somewhat wistfully, “You know when I first started reading your stuff? Impeachment. Your column about Monica’s dress was hilarious.” She motioned to the waiter. “Cheque, please.” And I got the impression she was feeling like the great pop guru Don Kirshner when the Monkees came to him and said they were sick of doing this bubble gum stuff and they needed to grow as artists. My Monica’s dress column was one in which I did a mock interview with said object: the dress had entered the witness protection program, had reconstructive surgery and was now living as a pair of curtains in Idaho. The late nineties was a lot of fun for a columnist. A third Clinton term and I could have retired to the Virgin Islands. But I feel like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, when she tells Bogey, “I’ve put that dress away. When the Germans march out, I’ll wear it again.” I’ve put Monica’s dress away. When the Islamofascists march out, I’ll wear it again.
My little tome on the end of the world comes out in a few weeks. And, though the
end-of-the-world bit is now reduced to the subtitle, I found myself once it had gone to the printers suddenly riddled with self-doubt: oh my God, what if I’m just being apocalyptic and neurotic? So I started picking up other books about the shape of things to come just to reassure myself. Most of us find it hard to focus on long-term trends because life is lived in the short term. Which is why the climate-change hysterics insist we only have “five to 10 years” to save the planet. Oddly enough, that’s what they were saying 15 to 20 years ago. Indeed, the indestructibility of climate-change hysteria is itself a symptom of societal complacency: if we were really serious about long-term problems, we wouldn’t have time to waste on Al Gore ecodoom scenarios.
At the other end of the spectrum is a hardheaded strategist like Thomas P. M. Barnett, author of The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century and Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating. Mr. Barnett divides the world into a functioning “Core” and a “Non-Integrating Gap” and favours using a “SysAdmin” force—a “pistolpackin’ Peace Corps”—to transform the “Gap” countries and bring them within the “Core.” He doesn’t have a high opinion of yours truly—he regards me as a racist buffoon—and one is naturally tempted to respond in sim-
ilar fashion. But, in fact, he talks a lot of sense—up to a point. The trouble is, like many chaps who swan about dispensing high-end advice to international A-listers, he views the world’s problems as something to be sorted out by more effective elites—better armed forces, international agencies, that sort of thing. The common herd are noticeable by their absence in his pages. If he did give them any thought, he’d realize that his vision of a “SysAdmin” force—European allies that would go into countries after American hard power has liberated them—is simply deluded. Whatever the defects of the Continent’s elites, the real problem isn’t the lack of leaders but the lack of followers. The demographic reality is that Europe is running out of Europeans—the deathbed fertility rates of the French, Italians, Germans, Spaniards, etc. is a continentwide suicide bomb, a kind of auto-genocide in which one population is gradually yielding to a successor population unlikely to share American foreign policy goals in any parts of the world likely to catch Washington’s eye in the next decade or three. Rather than the Continent’s leadership class helping move countries from the Non-Integrating Gap to the Core, it’s more likely that parts of Europe will be doing a Bosnia and moving from the Core to the Non-Integrating Gap.
There’s a similar omission in James Martin’s new book The Meaning of the 21st Century: A Vital Blueprint for Ensuring Our Future. Perhaps Mr. Martin got “blueprint”
from Barnett’s title—it’s one of those buzzwords appealing to the happy futurologist— although an alternative edition bears the subtitle “An Urgent Plan for Ensuring Our Future.” In fact, Martin has produced neither a vital blueprint nor an urgent plan nor an urgent blueprint, vital plan, planned blueprint or blue vitals (a side effect of global cooling?). Rather, his book is a flibbertygibberty gambol through global warming, poverty, nanotechnology, terrorism, hydroponics, transhumanism and anything else
that tickles his fancy for a paragraph or two. The author is a distinguished computer scientist and he’s big on the big picture: “Every year, because of our misuse of the earth’s resources, we lose 100 million acres of farmland and 24 billion tons of topsoil, and we create 15 million acres of new desert around the world... One-third of the world’s forest areas has disappeared since 1950.”
The obvious question here is: who’s this “we” you keep banging on about? My small town is more forested than it was either a century or two centuries ago. So clearly the “we” in my part of the world does things differently than the “we” in Sudan or Rwanda or the Brazilian rainforest. But the possibility that political, cultural or civilizational factors might be determinative is one to which Mr. Martin is fiercely resistant. The idea that the human species—rather than Belgians or Saudis or Fijians—is responsible for this or that environmental crisis is deeply appealing to the eco-doom-mongers because it casts the problem as a moral failure.
When Martin moves on from these technical problems (which is how we would look at them if we wanted to solve them rather than use them as opportunities for societal self-flagellation), the alleged great thinker
retreats into happy-face banality. His section on Islam is the most godawful pileup of Pollyanna generalities punctuated by absurdly overinflated anecdotal evidence, like the fact that the emir of Qatar has opened up a branch of Cornell medical school in his “Education City.” “There are aspects of civilization that are common,” Martin writes breezily. “Common ethics, the international legal system, networks for commerce ...” Whoa, hold it there. Has he ever tried doing business in Nigeria or Syria? Not to worry, says Martin. “A growing number of people will think of themselves as citizens of the planet rather than citizens of the West, or Islam, or Chinese civilization.” He provides no evidence for this assertion, and I would wager that it is, as they say in Britain, bollocks on stilts: the idea that an identity rooted in nothing more than the planet as a kind of universal zip code will ever be sufficient is laughable. The opposite is more likely to prove true: the more types like Martin promote the nullity of post-nationalist identity— what he calls “multicultural tolerance and respect”—the more people will look elsewhere, to pan-Islamism and much else.
I GOT THE IMPRESSION SHE WAS FEELING LIKE POP GURU DON KIRSHNER WHEN THE MONKEES SAID THEY NEEDED TO GROW AS ARTISTS
As for transhumanism, even that will be driven by dull old human demographics. I heard a story on the radio this week about some new Austin Powers-style “fembots” that are being developed by—guess who?— the Japanese. These aren’t like your old twelve-buck blow-up doll from PornoMart on Toronto’s Yonge Street, they’re much more lifelike and they cost 300 grand—as, indeed, many real broads do these days. But it’s no coincidence that Japan is the G7 nation that’s aging fastest: it has net population decline and no immigration. It thus has compelling structural and economic reasons to take a flyer on the post-human future. Martin is fascinated by transhumanism but has no interest in good old-fashioned humanity and
its ability—even through general sloth and disinclination to breed—to influence events. For the author of a book on The Meaning of the 21st Century, he shows remarkably little curiosity about that second word.
None of us knows how things will stand in 2030, any more than most of our forebears in 1906 could have predicted the collapses of the Russian, Turkish, Austrian and German empires in a little over a decade. But I like the way the American radio host Dennis Prager put it the other day: some of us worry about a resurgent militant Islam and its attendant complications, some of us worry about global warming. In 20 years’ time, one of us will be proved right and the other will look like an idiot. M
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