Actually, since the mid-to-late-1960, and long after Carter’s malaise speech, an increasing number on the left have existed in a sort of permanent malaise. Liberalism, as it called itself back then, entered the 1960s a confident ideology, believing that no problem was unsolvable. However, the one-two punch of not being able to process the cause of JFK’s assassination, and his successor LBJ attempting to tackle every American dilemma simultaneously, created a crisis of confidence that the left has never fully recovered from. Having given up on making America better, the left’s diminished élan manifested itself in two ways, which often overlap.
It gave rise to the punitive left, which sees America as the locus of evil in the world, and therefore wishes to diminish its power, both globally and domestically, and belittle its exceptionalism. (See also: Barack Obama.) But it also gave rise to those with a much more fatalistic outlook.
During the first Earth Day in 1970, all sorts of doomsday rhetoric was in the air promising the demise of man from anywhere from five years in the future to the end of the 20th century; this post at the I Hate the Media blog collates the nuttiest of them. In his classic 1976 essay, “The Intelligent Co-ed’s Guide to America,” Tom Wolfe mentioned sharing the podium at a college lecture on the topic of “The United States in the Year 2000,” with a speaker who was convinced that the world would be uninhabitable by the year 2000 because of aerosol spray use. And in order to put their doomsday prophesies into wide circulation, a number of Hollywood films were released during the early 1970s that used science fiction to illustrate the horrors to come: the famine and overpopulation of Soylent Green, the dehumanization of THX-1138, the population control of Logan’s Run, the deforestation depicted in Silent Running, and Rollerball, a corporatist warning of the scariest 21st century scenario of all: James Caan on roller-skates.
Back then, the big fear was global cooling; today it’s global warming – and occasionally, some of the same “scientists” have been spotted frightening audiences about both calamities — but the mindset is the same, as Josiah Neeley writes at the Federalist on “Malthus at the Movies”:
Where is Hollywood getting this stuff? The answer, improbably enough, is that they are getting it from the 18th Century Anglican Priest and economist Thomas Malthus. In his 1798 work An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus argued that, if left to its own devices, human population growth would outstrip improvements in agricultural productivity, leading inevitably to war, famine, pestilence, and death.
History has not been kind to Rev. Malthus’ arguments. Shortly after the book first appeared, the Industrial Revolution began and living standards began rapidly increasing even as the world’s population exploded. And while there were periodic warnings that we were about to run out of coal, or oil, or some other vital resource, these predictions were largely ignored, and ultimately proved false.
Starting in the mid-1960s, Malthusian fears began a strange rebirth. In his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich relied on Malthus’ theories to argue that overpopulation would inevitably lead to disaster. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” Ehrlich wrote. “In the 1970′s the world will undergo famines–hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” The situation was so dire Ehrlich even went so far as to say that “[i]f I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” This, mind you, in a work that was purportedly non-fiction, not science fiction.
Ehrlich wasn’t alone. In 1972 the prestigious Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, a report predicting that the world would run out of various commodities within 40 years. Ehrlich was a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show,” where he propounded his theories to a sympathetic Johnny Carson. Political figures as diverse as Richard Nixon and Martin Luther King, Jr. began to speak about the “population problem.” Even the normally clear-headed Alexander Solzhenitsyn uncritically accepted the Club of Rome’s predictions in his 1974 open letter to the Soviet leadership.
It was only natural that these dire predictions would start to work their way into film.
For those true believers who share the fatalism of Eric Holthaus, who’ve bought into the doomsday rhetoric, and yet have actually had children, a post in June at the Maggie’s Farm blog explored what they tell their kids about the horrible future and doomed planet into which they’ve been brought into. Picture Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 telling her son about the doomsday to come in just a few years when Skynet becomes self-aware, and you get the gist of it.
But such apocalyptic beliefs have been a staple of the left since the mid-1960s. Who knew just how old gray Chicken Little would become believing that world’s end was imminent? It’s this close. I can feel it. I know it’s going to happen. Any…day…now.
Update: “Time to Get Your Hockey Stick Tied,” quips Mark Steyn. “Eschewing procreation in order to spread their message only through conversion? Well, it worked for the Shakers…”