Terror, Reason and Lewis Hamilton

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities

I attended a climate change meeting on Thursday, held by Chesterfield borough council.

The idea was to invite a select few of the town’s residents to make suggestions on how the matter might be addressed at local level.

Which, as you might suppose, produced a series of familiar proposals from concerned, if ill-informed, folk who had no idea how such a bewilderingly vast problem might seriously be addressed.

We, the current representatives of the human race, do seem to do this sort of thing rather a lot.

News bulletins essentially involve presenting the public with immense problems that they can basically do nothing about then scaring them to death about how much worse things might yet get.

It does seem an odd thing to do, as if regular bouts of terror might somehow be good for us.

A related trend is the apparent need to talk up the latest monster as somehow even worse than the previous ones. Some of these claims seem a bit transparent to me, but what do I know?

For instance, climate change may indeed be the greatest challenge ever faced by humanity, as claimed by this writer.

But I still can’t help thinking that a global thermonuclear war, if we’d had one in the 1970s and ’80s, might have turned out just ever so slightly worse. (Though, of course, the horror of mutually assured destruction is so last century).

And who’s to say we’ve picked the right terrors to have nightmares about anyway?

Certainly, my personal daily experience concurs with Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan thesis, namely that life rarely works out how you think it should, with unexpected events cropping up alarmingly frequently, in spite of our curious, and definitely unproven, faith in our ability to forecast the future.

Personally, a story I happen to believe that’s worth following is the under-reported business with falling sperm counts. Now that’s my idea of an existential threat. But what do I know?

However, so many of these threats just feel ever so slightly overdone. As if the idea is to shock us out of a perceived complacency.

Because the fact is, if I may borrow Harold Macmillan’s famous phrase, we’ve never had it so good. Really, we haven’t.

Taking just one example, we live in the era known to historians as the Long Peace, a time of relative calm that looks positively odd, from a historical perspective, simply because it hasn’t been characterised by endless fisticuffs between the Great Powers of the day.

The fact is, wars have become deeply unfashionable yet nobody knows for sure why.

Was it the twentieth century nuclear stand-off? The rise of global capitalism? Falling birth rates? Dumb luck?

Who knows? Oddly though, most people I know haven’t heard of the Long Peace. Indeed, they seem to believe they’re living in uniquely dangerous times.

Rather like that deliciously self-absorbed worrier Lewis Hamilton, they ask themselves, why bother when the world is such a mess?

And bless him, he’s shifted to a plant-based diet, in order to help save the planet. As if sprinkling a few chia seeds on his morning muesli could offset the carbon dioxide emitted by a private jet hurtling through the troposphere.

So, what are we to conclude?

As I’ve said, I don’t know. Nobody does. But I do know it’s foolish to fret, like the lady from the council, worrying about what the planet’s surface temperatures may be in 2100. As, frankly, the idea that anybody could predict such a thing so far into the future is laughable.

As for terror, maybe we just somehow need it?

Lots of people certainly appear to believe it does us good in some way – if we are to judge, at any rate, from the huge numbers who watch the daily news.

My view is that terror has become a kind of defence against uncertainty, an emotional precautionary principle for the soul.

Because if things do turn out as badly as all that, well, we will feel we were right and thoroughly responsible to have rubbed ourselves so very raw – and, just maybe, it will thus have helped us mentally prepare for our doom.

I have two objections here, though.

Firstly, I feel sure it won’t work. It’s certainly dubious at best. Some men, like Robespierre, may contemplate the horror of the guillotine for years – but they are still destined to be led to their execution screaming.

Second, there’s the not insignificant risk that humanity might yet again solve its problems and we find that all those long, lonely years of night terrors look just a teensy bit childish in retrospect.

In which case, we will have wasted that most precious and most limited of all commodities: the joy of life itself.


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