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Why Activists Keep Telling You the World is Ending
"Doomerism" is just nihilistic chic.
You might remember that the world was supposed to end in 2012. The Mayan “Long Count” calendar rolled over on December 21 of that year, and so some people (naturally) concluded that this meant the apocalypse—there were hit songs and blockbuster films about it. Most of this talk was just for fun, but there were some true believers: according to one poll taken at the time, about ten percent of the world’s population really believed that the end of the Mayan calendar meant the end of the world. The fact that we’re still alive, of course, proves just how wrong these “predictions” were.
In recent years, however, a new category of doomer has become common in American public life. Unlike previous prophets of the apocalypse who pinned their predictions on religious texts, ancient calendars, or astrology, these new doomers claim that scientific, observable real-world phenomena are driving the planet towards inevitable catastrophe.
Precisely what these people say will lead to the end is all over the map. The most common source of doom is climate change, which some people insist is cooking the planet. Others say that artificial intelligence, overpopulation, or nuclear weapons are pushing humanity ever closer to the brink of collapse or outright extinction. And while many of these issues seem like concerns of the political left, doomerism is by no means the province of one ideology or political party. On the right, fears about declining birth rates, gender ideology, and urban crime, have convinced some conservatives that America is committing national suicide.
What sets doomers apart from normal people who identify problems in American life—often large and significant ones—is their suffocating pessimism, their lack of a positive vision, and their insistence that anybody who has even a shred of optimism about life in America is delusional. In the eyes of the doomer, society is not just bad—it’s a hellscape. Making change is not just difficult, it’s impossible; happiness is not just elusive but futile. And while this mindset isn’t necessarily commonplace, neither is it completely absent from the public consciousness—especially among elites. One survey, for instance, asked 10,000 young people in ten countries about their thoughts on climate change, and found that over 55 percent said that “humanity is doomed.”
It’s possible to point out that the doomers are just wrong on the merits, noting that humanity isn’t on the brink of extinction and that now is a better time to live than any other period in history. But a number of articles have already made this point. So rather than dwell on the everyday doomer who is just misinformed, I’d like to focus in on the public faces of doomerism—those people with big platforms and loud voices who insist on propagating a message of nihilistic pessimism.
Who are these leading proponents of doomerism, what motivates them, and how does their behavior affect the rest of us?
First off, doomerism has become a powerful way to get attention and build a public profile. Anyone who spent any time on Twitter during the pandemic likely saw this play out in real-time as it became routine for a person with “Ph.D.” or “MD” in their handle to predict that we were on the edge of another wave of infections, hospitals were about to fill up, or some new variant was coming to kill us all. Many of these Twitter doctors built large online followings via doom-mongering, and some even spun their success off into newsletters and national press attention. Professional and financial incentives encourage doomerism, both as it relates to Covid and other phenomena.
Second, doomerism provides a convenient way to present an air of moral superiority and superior intelligence. Despite offering little more than unhelpful nihilism, doomers frequently present themselves as uncompromising idealists willing to tell it like it is. There’s something strangely romantic and faux-intellectual to the idea that humanity has fallen and is now doomed to suffer the consequences. When you compare this neat and concise story to the more nuanced and qualified arguments others need to make, it’s again easy to understand why some public figures and intellectuals gravitate to doomerism.
A third explanation is less cynical. Many high-profile doomers are genuinely concerned about the problems that exist in the world, and are afraid that acknowledging any success whatsoever will impede future progress. According to this mindset, change only happens when the public believes that the current trajectory is unsustainable or present conditions are seen as intolerable. It follows, then, that the best way to initiate change is to convince people that things are much worse than they already imagine, if not deteriorating with each passing day.
Despite ostensibly good intentions, this final line of thinking is particularly tragic because the instinct to ratchet up the doom and gloom typically proves counterproductive to achieving actual progress in the real world. Instead of lighting a fire under the public and politicians, telling people that the world is horrible leaves people in a sort of nihilistic paralysis: if we’re all doomed no matter what we do, why try to make any progress at all?
What’s more, doomerism inspires counterproductive overreaction. When people become convinced a phenomenon is a greater threat than it is in reality, it can lead to missed opportunities and awful public policy. That’s precisely what happened with nuclear energy. When the technology became viable in the 1950s, it had the potential to dramatically reduce humanity’s carbon output and reduce the long-term effects of climate change. But environmentalists and regulators whipped up a panic about radiation, safety, and nuclear waste. Today, nuclear energy is underutilized and the result is more carbon and more climate change.
Finally, doomerism has negative personal consequences at the individual level. In the survey of 10,000 young people referenced earlier, over 45 percent said that their feelings about climate change “negatively affected their daily life and functioning.” That’s not surprising given how doomerism manifests online and how it can translate into the real world, as it did with one young woman who told the BBC last year: "Let me tell you why I don't know what I want to do with my life and why I'm not planning…by the year 2050, most of us should be underwater from global warming.”
America and the world face considerable problems, from global warming and threats to democracy to the enduring challenges posed by nuclear weapons. But these problems are reason to reject doomerism and those who are pushing it onto us. It’s precisely because we have so much work to do that we can’t afford to let a self-destructive nihilism get in the way.