Dr Lee Rotherham is the author of the Discerning Tourist’s Guide to the End of the World
Some people stand by their Dickens. Others are adherents of Thackeray. For myself, the Victorian writer who is the most rewarding has to be Charles Mackay.
His 1841 volume on “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” is (if you have the galoshes to wade through the heavier bits) a joy to read. The section on the Influence of politics and religion on the hair and the beard has a particular poignancy in this age of befollicled politicos; the example of the Belgian Revolutionaries of 1830 may even go some way to explaining the fronds briefly appearing on the face of Monsieur Farage: “after that event there was hardly a shopkeeper either in Paris or Brussels whose upper lip did not suddenly become hairy with real or mock moustaches.”
The real treasure of the volume however lies in the showing of how popular trends through the ages can be so damagingly repetitive, self-fuelling and irrational. There is the South Sea Bubble and its French counterpart in Mississippi; Dutch tulipomania; the fume-addled quest to transmute lead into gold (or more likely as Lord Percy would discover, ‘a nugget of purest Green’); or the astonishing rumour-driven Crusades with their rates of attrition and carnage unrivalled by George RR Martin and Momentum combined.
The age in which we live makes the warnings to be drawn particularly important. Our era is one of oceans of ideas, where individuals (if they have access to the technology) can dredge vast amounts of floating krill. But there are two core questions. Can they sift it without choking? And is what they are hoovering up nutritious, or the factual equivalent of the plastic globules left by shower gel?
One might assume that the free market of ideas, the very wiki-ness of the train of thought flowing through Social Media, might generate a self-correcting mechanism. Despite the socio-technological optimism of Guido Fawkes in the era when he was first setting up his site, we still seem to be some distance from that happy condition just yet. If we map out Social Media sources we can still see a dependence on particular lighthouses of society, whether state-funded institutions or hallmark figures. During the Brexit campaign, Michael Gove railed against a certain tyranny of ‘experts’.
By this, he was challenging trends based on normative assumptions (and analysis often funded by the subjects of their studies, in this case the European Commission). On this occasion, perhaps for the first time and possibly yet breaking the trend, the ‘expert’ trombonist was at a disconnect from his audience.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb (of ‘Black Swan theory’ fame, whom I increasingly suspect is Dominic Cummings’s secret uncle) has latterly gone several bounds further, setting out his thoughts on the “Intellectual Yet Idiot” or IYI.
It is quite some diatribe, but important for it because it reminds us of the need to challenge all our assumptions of leadership group think. Even the cleverist of analysts or commentators can become part of the herd. With Social Media, casual Retweets in turn make for a lot of room for the rest of us collectively plummeting off cliffs. If the aftermath is a nice collection of dinosaur specimens in a museum in Brussels when the Iguanodons are finally pulled out of the coal mine, that is still scant consolation for the sky divers themselves.
My latest book might at face value be about cataclysm and catastrophe – it is after all a tour guide to the Apocalypse – but I was originally inspired it to pen it to review part of this disconnect. At its heart are thirty ways that, according to popular culture or occasional front page scares, the world is foretold to go down a latrine in a hand cart.
Obviously it’s not all completely serious – trigger scenario number 30 for example is simply entitled “The French” – but the more you dig into the background of a number of the frighteners, the more fascinating it becomes to understand the priority focuses of world elites. More alarming is learning the little-understood elements of global natural selection over the last few decades, millennia, and kalpa that have been less talked about.
Hence it is disconcerting to review the scientific debate on the impact of the eruption of Mount Toba and other possible bottleneck catastrophes on human evolution. It is sobering to reflect on the mortality rates associated with the repeat waves of the Black Death and a range of other epidemics. And while these are obviously low risk events this week, it is particularly unnerving to ponder our insouciance at these threats, despite being merely three generations from an earthquake that killed one hundred thousand people in Italy, or the Damoclean terrors of Spanish Flu.
Perhaps our eyes have been distracted by all the other man made horrors of that age, which were easier to film. But from the thirty trigger causes, what is perhaps most surprising is the focus of elite attention. It’s not simply that it heavily rests on one particular issue, the Global Warming threat – of the other menaces, who genuinely expects an alien invasion within the next fifty years (though given radio wave output I helpfully float a formula for SETI to work it out)?
The worry is the development of consensus political mood music that accompanies the consensus science. That carries inherent risk of a dogmatic orthodoxy (though thankfully, not since the seventeenth century of a risk of orthodonty). As with any decision-making homogeneity, this needs backbench challenge, with counterparts fulfilling an equivalent backbench role within the scientific community.
Meanwhile, if on at least six occasions the world came closer to nuclear war than is administratively satisfactory, perhaps that is something we should be spending a bit more tea and biscuits time on, particularly now that Russia has a “de-escalatory” first strike doctrine. (Note to Labour: this does not equate to recommending unilateralism.)
This is not a call to panic. It’s a summons to think. Otherwise, our nation’s experts face being even more far-ranging as IYIs, and we risk becoming ducklings following them across an ill-starred future double carriageway. It happened over Stalinism. It happened over Sub Prime. And it happened over Brexit – but that’s one particular predicted “apocalypse” readers will be glad to hear the book does not delve into.