The present time, which has justly been called the Age of Unreason, is also an exceptionally confused and neurotic one. Indeed, it is unreasonable because it is confused and neurotic, a fact that its blind faith in liberalism and science make it unable to recognize.
Confronted by what it views as the existential crisis of climate change caused by human activity, progressive liberalism promotes the widening illusion that Homo sapiens is actually and morally responsible for endangering “the planet”; that humans can accomplish anything, including reversing and even halting the process, supposing they have the moral will to do so. Corollary to these convictions is the belief that humanity could, and should, have prevented the emergency by taking action over past centuries to forestall it, and that should we fail to do so now, we are doubly damned and guilty.
This double fallacy implies that humanity — that portion of it, at least, that created the modern industrial world — ought to have comprehended what it was doing and where it was going from the start, foreseen the consequences and made a collective decision to cease and desist from its destructive activity, presumably by means of some equivalent of the social contract that Rousseau believed created human society in the first place.
Further, since “we” could have decided against industrializing two centuries ago, “we” can modify industrial civilization in the twenty-first century by means of still another contract, relying on modern scientific and industrial technique, to save the earth, the natural world and ourselves. Their conviction that, in our double capacity as positivist and humanitarian liberals and as the masters of creation (“Glory to man in the highest,” said Swinburne, “for he is the master of things”), “we” have the social, intellectual and political ability to accomplish this aim makes failure morally “unacceptable” to liberals. Such unacceptability means that the most irrational solutions should be considered by looking to the past — e.g., returning to hunting and gathering — and to the future: uploading our minds to computers and exiling ourselves to the stars. In between these extremes come the countless desperate attempts by liberal governments at “doing something,” while refusing to admit that “we” are insufficient to the job without the cooperation of “them”: the autocratic non-Western governments whose tacit refusals to give it are ignored resolutely. Here we have the third fallacy: that of good intentions, whose attractiveness is reinforced in the minds of people who subscribe to it by the prospect of achieving limitless power over “us,” which to our determined lords and masters would be a satisfactory consolation prize for losing the struggle against global warming.
It is quite true that at one level industrialism makes no sense. In a short two centuries it has done incalculable damage to nature and thrown the world out of kilter, as Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit accused Christ of having done. Moreover, it is, indeed, “unsustainable,” being dependent on growth for the sake of growth, which is what Edward Abbey, the late novelist and nature writer, called “the ideology of the cancer cell.” Equally true is that it has brought humanity incalculable material benefits, immeasurably improving its health and lengthening its lifespan while freeing it to exercise its mental abilities, talents and ingenuity on behalf of the arts and sciences, pure and applied, while providing it with the leisure for serious philosophical and theological speculation.
Though responsible for a great deal that is ugly, vulgar, dangerous and deadly in the world, it has also created much that is majestic, beautiful and sublime — for instance, the twentieth-century ocean liner, an emblematic example of the fusion of mechanical technique and the plastic arts. The quality and power of the human mind made the modern industrial world inevitable, given only the time and circumstances necessary for it to develop and exercise the full mental potential of the species.
Twenty-one centuries after Christ it is becoming plain that civilization, as we know it, cannot, and thus will not, go on forever. Does this imply that it should never have existed at all? The question is an ahistorical, anti-philosophical, anti-scientific, anti-human one. Nothing is forever, including the universe — with the exceptions, for religious believers, of the human soul and of the deity. Meanwhile, what is is better than what is not; what has been, better than what never was and never will be.
Ed Abbey was a pagan who welcomed the return of paganism to the Western world. Paganism and the worship of nature have the attractions of obviousness and of simplicity. But as Chesterton and Eliot recognized, after such knowledge — Judeo-Christianity — what forgiveness? As a highly civilized and well-read man, Abbey (who was a friend of mine) would not have agreed with postmodern neurotics that the human world should have stopped short at its hunter-gatherer stage and forgone what followed it, including the Sumerians, “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome” and all that came after them.
And he’d rather lie where he lies today, in an unmarked pit in the gravel of the Arizona desert, than to have been uploaded to a computer and fired in a metal tube at the stars.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s July 2023 World edition.