Being in France again, I read Le Monde. On Saturday 9 February, my eye was caught by a little notice at the top of the front page of the Ideas & Culture section advertising an article on pages 4 and 5 in the same section. The notice read:
Paul Ehrlich preaches in the wilderness: the American biologist predicts the collapse of our civilisation. Studies that agree are multiplying. But no one does anything.
Could this be the same Paul Ehrlich who, in 1968, wrote ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines, hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programme embarked on now’? Reader, it could be, and it is.
This set me thinking about the typology of pessimists. Naturally I prefer pessimism to optimism, largely because optimists have no sense of humour; and since I have a sense of humour, I must be a pessimist.
But of course it does not follow from the fact that people with a sense of humour are pessimists that pessimists have a sense of humour. This is because there are two main types of pessimist, the existential and the apocalyptic. The former is pessimistic because he knows that Man is an imperfect being, inclined to do wrong for its own sake, often blind where his own best interests are concerned, ridiculous, self-destructive and self-defeating, and endowed with contradictory and incompatible wishes and desires. He knows that life will never be right.
The apocalyptic pessimist is different. He is so earnest that he could almost be an optimist. He believes that the end of the world is nigh, and secretly is rather pleased about it. If he is of a scientific bent, he does the following: he takes an undesirable trend and projects it indefinitely into the future until whatever is the object of the trend destroys the world. For example, he might take the fact that Staphylococci reproduce exponentially on a Petri dish to mean that, within the week, the entire biosphere will consist of Staphylococci and nothing else. Man will be crushed under the weight of bacteria.
Paul Ehrlich is of that ilk. His belief in the end of the world precedes his belief in any particular cause of it. When the end fails to happen as previously announced, his faith is undented. The End of the World has not happened. Long live the End of the World!
First published in Salisbury Review.