The media doomsday cult

I never thought I’d reach the point where I want to look away from the world, but I’ll be honest: I’m the closest I’ve ever been to disconnecting the internet, avoiding the news, and switching channels away from anything other than the comforting banality of Murder, She Wrote reruns.

Sure, every generation thinks it’s the end of the world and humanity can’t survive, and they’ve always been wrong, but these days it’s like watching a slow-motion car crash – or a nuclear strike in treacle. An epidemic of stabbings and mass shootings; a British Parliament crippled by indecision and infighting; a narcissistic lunatic in the White House; innocents massacred in Syria; earthquakes and superstorms; protesters on every street corner; people at each other’s throats; families breaking apart; traditional morals disappearing; and to top it all, the planet is dying. False prophets, nation pitted against nation, wars and rumours of wars, moral decay, signs in the stars, and earthquakes: we’re practically living through the biblical End of Days.

Or are we? I’ve said before that the greatest threat to mankind’s future is the increasing polarisation of society – the division of people into mutually antagonistic groups. Man vs woman, black vs white, old vs young, rich vs poor, left vs right, us vs them, all couched in terms of good vs evil, and as soon as you call the other side evil, or less than human, it justifies whatever you do to them: lock them in cages, deny them their civil liberties, throw milkshakes over them, or acid, drive your car into them, or stab them or shoot them or blow them up. It’s divisive and it’s dangerous and it’s wrong.

We act as though, instead of working together and seeing what unites us, we should double down on the differences and shout at one another, everybody making noise but nobody listening. I’ve never seen a time where civilised debate has broken down into so much name-calling. People are traitors, fascists, Nazis, baby-killers; they’re bigots and racists and misogynists and xenophobes. The validity of their argument is not based on its internal logic, but on their skin colour, their sex, their gender, their sexuality. I refuse to listen to you because you’re a white, male, middle class, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied baby boomer; and I refuse to listen to you because you’re a black, working class, trans-female, lesbian, disabled millennial. And you’re evil, not me, it’s you, you, you.

And who has caused this? Everybody. It’s not Trump, not UKIP, though they’ve certainly exploited it as much as the progressives and the politically correct have. It’s all of us. We’ve allowed it to happen. Every time we pick up the Daily Mail or the Guardian; every time we share some random, unsourced, unverified claim on Facebook; every time we argue with somebody on Twitter; every time we demand someone loses their job and their livelihood for having a different opinion to us; every time we question the truth of a message based on the gender or age or colour of the messenger; every time we click on a political video on YouTube; every time we feel satisfaction when someone on the other ‘side’ is embarrassed or humiliated; every time we engage with a book or a TV show or a movie that supports our ideology; every time we buy into this ‘us and them’ rubbish; and yes, every time we vote for people who not only accept but exploit and heighten these divisions, we are part of the problem.

But being on the ‘right’ side feels so damned good, doesn’t it? Fighting the good fight against the evil enemy, we’re all heroes of our own black-and-white morality play. Because this kind of thinking doesn’t allow for shades of grey, or for the people on the other side being simply that – people. People with thoughts and feelings. People who have beliefs formed by their experiences, by their frailties and their fears. People who are sometimes right, often wrong, but are no more evil than you and I. No. The people on the other side are evil monsters. That makes far more sense. And it means we don’t have to think, to consider whether there are other arguments more valid, or more convincing, or more just, than our own.

And while we’re all responsible for the anger resonating around our societies, I think the media plays a massive part in catering to these base instincts. As we all know, ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. Human nature being what is is, we love what stirs our passions, and those negative emotions – anger, fear, jealousy, hatred – feel much more potent, and long-lasting, and somehow more ‘real’ than joy, and hope, and comfort. We even try to justify it in intellectual terms, as though clever, educated, informed people are aware of the world as it really is, and only the dumb, the ignorant, and the ill-informed can be happy. That’s a load of bull.

The media is full of misery because misery sells, and despite claims to journalistic integrity and impartiality, the news is an industry that lives on sales and clicks. The world is incredibly complicated, far too complicated to provide an easily-digestible soundbite for the Six O’Clock news. You can’t provide balance, or nuance, or explain the limits of what we can and can’t predict, or the reliability or likelihood of economic, scientific, or geopolitical projections. It’s far easier to sell narratives that play into good/bad dichotomies of selfishness, greed, murder, exploitation, and the rape of the natural world, than admit that there are positives and negatives to everything, it’s all about balance and compromise, and the influence of this on that is not something we can accurately measure.

The bottom line is that optimism – feeling safe – does not sell papers. But what can kill you, what can scar you, what can make you fear for your future and your family’s future, and what erodes your faith in humanity, is what feeds the media industry. Be afraid: Britain is trapped in Brexit deadlock; there’s a madman in the White House; we’re in the middle of a crime epidemic; and the planet is dying! Be afraid. Don’t miss the next news report! You need to know what’s going on!

Little by little, you disappear down the rabbit hole, and you lose your way back to the light.

So instead of turning away from the news, I think we should seek out the good, the positive, the hopeful and the optimistic – those things that tell us we’re not dying, it’s not as bad as all that. Let’s all stop hating each other and see what unites us.

Here are some news stories you might have missed, because they couldn’t feed into the doomsday cult we all seem to follow:

1. Warfare is at historically low levels. The number of people killed in international wars dropped from 65,000 a year in the 1950s to 2,000 a year in the 2000s despite wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise, from 1989 to 2005, campaigns of mass killing of civilians dropped 90%. There aren’t more wars these days; it just feels like there are because during Vietnam, Cambodia and the Iran-Iraq war, we didn’t have 24-hour news channels and social media showing us every atrocity in real time and sensationalising it for clicks and likes.

2. Global poverty levels were cut in half between 1990 and 2012, a phenomenal improvement to people’s lives in terms of both income and standard of living. And this isn’t just in some countries or continents, but across the entire globe. It turns out that globalisation, the process by which the West exploits the labour and resources of the developing world, actually provides benefits for everyone, but that doesn’t fit into the us/them, rich vs poor paradigm.

3. Every objective, academic, statistical source you consult will tell you the same thing: the crime rate is falling. It rose during the 1980s, peaked in the early 90s, and then dropped off rapidly and has continued to fall year on year. In the US, using FBI statistics, violent crime fell 51% between 1993 and 2018, while the Bureau of Justice Statistics records a 71% drop for the same period. In the UK, according to the Office For National Statistics, violent crime peaked in 1995 and then fell two-thirds by 2017. While it is true that the drop-off appears to have stopped in the last couple of years, and certain types of crime (such as knife crime in the UK) have increased, crime levels are still substantially below the levels of the 1980s and early 90s. Anybody claiming we are living through a violent crime epidemic is doing so for sensationalism or political gain.

4. Despite all the dire predictions and catastrophising, there are more polar bears today than there were 40 years ago, and far from dying out, they’re actually increasing in number. Indeed, they seem remarkably adaptive to changing conditions. Why? It would appear that thinner ice gives them easier access to seals. The effects of climate change are incredibly difficult to predict, and talking about it in terms of good and bad denies the reality that some will benefit and some won’t.

5. According to NASA, the world is literally greener today than it was 20 years ago. Thanks to tree-planting programmes in China and agricultural programmes in China and India, there are an extra 2 million square miles of green leaf area, an equivalent size to the entire Amazon rainforest. As Rama Nemani is quoted as saying, ‘Once people realise there’s a problem, they tend to fix it.’ Since it is also the biggest manufacturer and installer of solar panels, China is not simply the mass-polluting monster it’s made out to be in the press, but that wouldn’t keep us all living in fear.

6. The ozone layer is repairing itself. It’s got a long way to go, but thanks to the global community’s efforts to remove CFCs, last year it was 16% smaller than in 2006.

7. By 2018, 101 cities drew more than 70% of their energy from renewable sources, up from 42 in 2015, with 43 powered entirely by ‘clean’ energy. The idea that we’re doing nothing about the environment is at best ill-informed and at worst a deliberate lie to stir up the rage of the young against the old, and the have-nots against the haves.

8. Chinese scientists have developed a new strain of rice that grows in the desert with diluted seawater, meaning global food supplies will be far more stable.

9. The Belize Barrier Reef is no longer endangered. This was thanks to the government of Belize imposing a moratorium on oil prospecting around the reef and implementing protections on coastal mangrove swamps.

And I could go on and on. But you get the picture: there are plenty of reasons for optimism, but only if you go out and look for it.

You know what is getting worse? The suicide rate. And that is the very definition of the victory of pessimism over hope.

There’s a reason for the rise of populism. There’s a reason Trump was elected, Brexit happened (or didn’t). The proliferation of social media, the echo chambers of increasingly divisive left/right media, and our own morbid relationship with seeing the negative in everything has crippled us into cowering intransigence. We’d rather find safety among our own tribe, where everyone thinks just the same as us, and score points against the evil, bigoted, Hitlers on the other side, than reach across the divide and find a solution.

And who benefits?

When people are lost, they’ll follow anybody who claims to know the way.

Even if it’s over a cliff.

Greta the Aspie

There’s a strange assumption I’ve come across of late that, by dint of my autism, I must necessarily be a fan of other people on the spectrum. This is particularly odd when the only point of similarity between us is our diagnosis. As a tattooed, shaven-headed, guitar-playing proponent of punk, rock, metal and grunge, is it really likely that I’m going to listen to Susan Boyle simply because she’s Aspergic? And as a fan of mostly horror and crime fiction, am I going to enjoy Chris Packham’s meandering nature memoir because he, too, is on the spectrum? (Short answer, no).

So, in a week during which 16-year-old autistic activist Greta Thurnberg dominated the headlines by not only arguing her case at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, but also giving the Leader of the Free World the worst case of stink eye I’ve ever seen, everywhere I go it’s assumed I must be a fan. People keep asking my opinion of her, and of climate change, and whether we should be running for the hills screaming, ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling!’ all because we both happen to have Asperger’s Syndrome.

On the one hand, it’s rather patronising to presume that, because we’re both autistic, I have specialist insight into a 16-year-old girl from Sweden who has made it her mission to beat everyone over the head with a virtue stick like a real life Lisa Simpson. On the other, it’s nice that people are talking to me, and since, as a result of my autism, I’m a keen observer of the human condition (even if my conclusions are sometimes way off base), it probably makes more sense to ask me than some random weirdo who sleeps on a park bench and smells of cheese.

So what do I think of Greta Thurnberg?

I have mixed feelings. I think she’s done an amazing job almost singlehandedly putting environmentalism at the centre of the political agenda and bringing the issue of climate change to the forefront of everyone’s minds, and there’s little doubt her autism has played a massive part in this – her obsession, stubbornness, and dogged refusal to be put off by any criticism or negative feedback have all served her well. She’s demonstrated in the best possible way that one person can change the world, if only they work hard and believe in themselves enough. And unlike some environmentalists (*cough* Prince Harry *cough*), she practices what she preaches, travelling by trains and yachts instead of cars and planes. Kudos.

However, the same autism that has enabled her to succeed has, I think, exposed her to legitimate criticism in terms of her message, and created genuine concern about the potential impact of being so notorious so young on both her short-term and long-term mental health.

Climate change is clearly her obsession, but as with many people on the spectrum, while we are fabulous at learning facts and figures, we often lack a genuine understanding of the topic – we’re great at studying the trees, but not so good at putting them together to see the forest. You know, big picture stuff. There is certainly a tinge of millenarian hysteria in her rhetoric, and while she has been emotionally restrained in the past, her speech on Monday was dramatic, scathing, emotional and scolding. It risked undermining the good that she’s done since nobody likes being lectured by a know-it-all teenager who thinks they can solve all the world’s problems because they’re better than you. I should know – as a teen I was insufferable, and, human nature being what it us, I never managed to convince anyone that my extensive knowledge of playground social interaction meant anything in the ‘real’ world. Strange.

Now, before you say I’m a climate change denier, I’m not. The science is unequivocal – the climate is changing. And anyone who ignores the impact of man on the environment and thinks it’s all a conspiracy to charge higher taxes simply doesn’t want to face the uncomfortable truth that we are a massive cause of this. That said, predicting the effects of anthropogenic global warming using computer models is on less sure-footing given our inability to accurately measure the influence of millions of different variables on complex weather patterns, ocean currents and ecosystems. I think much of the panic afflicting young people right now is from taking the ‘worst case scenario’ models. It’s ‘end of the world’ stuff, a doomsday cult with scientific backing, so it’s no wonder that schoolkids are crying themselves to sleep over our impending demise.

I’m not so pessimistic. I think we’re going to be seeing a turbulent few decades involving mass migration of people, increasingly frequent extreme weather events, and lots of highly-charged arguments about power sources and a diet containing less meat and more locally-sourced produce, but I don’t think humanity is going extinct. And the accusation that we’re doing nothing to combat climate change is just as selective a reading of the evidence as climate change denial. We’re not doing enough, certainly; we can definitely go further; but the very fact so many people are engaging with this issue shows that it is being taken seriously by large swathes of the population, including consumers, manufacturers, lobbyists and politicians (with the notable exception of Donald Trump).

Likewise, I fundamentally disagree with many climate change zealots who seem to think we can save the world by going backwards, banning cars and air travel and returning to a pre-industrial-type lifestyle. That genie is out of the lamp, and it’s not getting put back in. Through the natural earthly cycle, climate change is going to happen whether or not we change, so preparing for it is far better than trying to hold back the tide. We need more technology, not less. Look at how digital streaming services have massively reduced the manufacture of CDs and DVDs. Look at how 3D printers prevent the need for transporting goods from the other side of the world. Look at the new Sabre oxygen-hydrogen hybrid engine, which promises far greener air travel. These are the things that are going to let us reach a carbon-neutral society, not a bunch of Luddites throwing their shoes into the machinery.

When it comes to effecting change, I think Greta Thurnberg is right in targeting the young and will reap the rewards of this stratagem, but not in the way that she thinks. Far too many pressure groups and protesters (like Extinction Rebellion and many of Thurnberg’s student activists) seem to prefer standing on the outside shouting at ‘the Establishment’, and I have no truck with that that way of thinking. If you want system change, you do it from within the system. You train hard and work hard, you become an expert, you get into a position where you have the power to change things – you don’t piss and moan on a street corner. I don’t think the student strikes will change the world, but I think ten years from now, when those same students move into government and academia and industry around the world, that’s when things will change – from the inside.

As far as Thurnberg’s mental health goes, I do worry what kind of support she’s receiving. This is a person with diagnoses of autism, OCD and selective mutism who, by her own admission, has battled depression and anorexia and who is right now at the very centre of world affairs and media scrutiny. Of course, I’m not saying that this in any way detracts from her message or that she should be denied the right to express it, but as someone who has experienced breakdowns and burnouts throughout his life, I wonder how long she can keep it up. My saying this probably comes across as patronising in itself, and if so, yeah, I am, but that doesn’t change that, from my experience of those of us on the spectrum, her mental health is a legitimate concern and she should not be mocked by the President of the United States simply for being herself.

So, in summary, I think Greta Thurnberg should be applauded, not only for highlighting the issue of climate change, battling her way into the corridors of power, and ensuring the next generation of lawmakers and decision-makers will be concerned about the environment, but for practising what she preaches, even if I’m not entirely on-board with the severity of her message, and I have more hope about the future than she seems to be.

The way I see it, while climate change makes the future a terrifying unknown, we’re humans – we’re creative, adaptable, resilient and determined, and I have no doubt we’ve got this. Of course, climate change fanatics, and Greta Thurnberg herself, might call this hubris, since humans can also be stupid, selfish, backward-looking and incredibly resistant to change. It all depends on your perception of humanity, and whether you believe we are collectively a good or an evil. I’m prepared to think we’re better than Thurnberg thinks.

I hope humanity doesn’t prove me wrong.