As an asteroid hurtles toward Earth, terrified citizens pour into the streets of Brussels to stare at the mammoth object growing before their eyes. Soon, it will pass harmlessly by—but first, a strange old man, Professor Philippulus, dressed in a white sheet and wearing a long beard, appears, beating a gong and crying: “This is a punishment; repent, for the world is ending!”
We smile at the silliness of this scene from the Tintin comic strip L’Étoile Mystérieuse, published in Belgium in 1941. Yet it is also familiar, since so many people in both Europe and the United States have recently convinced themselves that the End is nigh. This depressing conviction may seem surprising, given that the West continues to enjoy an unparalleled standard of living. But Professor Philippulus has nevertheless managed to achieve power in governments, the media, and high places generally. Constantly, he spreads fear: of progress, of science, of demographics, of global warming, of technology, of food. In five years or in ten years, temperatures will rise, Earth will be uninhabitable, natural disasters will multiply, the climate will bring us to war, and nuclear plants will explode. Man has committed the sin of pride; he has destroyed his habitat and ravaged the planet; he must atone.
My point is not to minimize the dangers that we face. Rather, it is to understand why apocalyptic fear has gripped so many of our leaders, scientists, and intellectuals, who insist on reasoning and arguing as though they were following the scripts of mediocre Hollywood disaster movies.