There is a type of person that needs to be part of a Big Cause. They cannot seem to accept the probability that they live in unexceptional times, that they themselves are thoroughly ordinary and will leave no lasting mark behind when they are gone. The number of individuals that substantially affect the course of history is vanishingly small and the mass of real progress takes place in tiny steps carried out by anonymous individuals. It is usually only in the collective total of our uncoordinated efforts that mankind as a whole advances in any way.
Some Big Causes do greatly benefit mankind (such as the programme to eradicate smallpox) but most, however well-intentioned initially, result in great harm. Many of the most damaging ones, for example fascism and communism, require another Big Cause to end them. Adherents to a particular Cause will necessarily not see it as just another campaign for progress, but as THE Big Cause, the movement that will change the historical paradigm and catapult humanity into a dazzling future. Carrying out the personal actions prescribed by The Cause marks them out as one of the elect, and from then on no matter how commonplace other aspects of their life may be, they will have made their mark. They mattered.
This sort of belief is terribly seductive. As noted above, I do not think that all Big Causes are harmful, and I am not suggesting that only a bunch of no-hope losers would sign up for a Big Cause. However, for the most popular Big Causes of the twentieth century, this sort of optimistic, wishful thinking turned out to be a mere fairy tale. Indeed, the brutal and violent nature of the Big Causes of the previous century meant that only a sentiment-based, appeal to emotion Cause such as Climate Alarmism could arise in their wake.
And now as the end-game of Climate Alarmism as a major political force comes into view, I find myself wondering what will be the effect on the mass of its adherents. Historical Big-Causers such as Robespierre, Mao and the majority of their followers went to their graves convinced they had been doing the right thing, never renouncing the horrific by-products of their dogmas. Once signed up to a Big Cause, few ever leave. Will it be the same for the Alarmists?
One of the things that I find hardest to swallow is that the political, NGO and civil service fools wasting vast quantities of public money in the name of Alarmism are told on a daily basis by their fellow travellers in the media that they are doing a Great Thing. They are resolutely building a better world for everyone, especially for the oft-invoked archetypal grandchildren. Most of these apparatchiks will go to their graves convinced they spent their lives helping their fellow humans. Even if the science behind their beliefs becomes publicly as discredited as that which denigrated plate tectonics, they will excuse themselves as being the innocent and well-meaning victims of deception. Their ignorance is their shield.
For the hard core of true believers, the Alarmist Cause will never die and they will follow it resolutely into the sunset, becoming the Trotskyites and Eugenicists of the future. Irrelevance will swallow them. For the less resolute, who come to accept the fall of Alarmism (or at least realise it has become a waste of time), the banner of other Causes will be raised instead. The beginnings of these new Causes will even now be growing and are probably already visible, just not gathering much media attention. Yet.
My guess is that many of the Alarmists will deflect their anti-capitalist neo-ludditism into campaigns against genetic engineering and nanotechnology; nascent movements to oppose both are already growing. Inevitably they will once again claim unequivocally that the science is on their side, even as they shut down scientific debate and rail against genuine scientific progress.
Unfortunately, it will not be until long after the worst Alarmists are dead that they will finally be grouped with the Malthusians and Lysenkoists as they deserve.
This article has also been published on the Samizdata libertarian blog, here.