203 Comments

Fantastic piece. Thank you.

One point I would like to add is that we do harm when our response to risks is excessive.

My favourite example is fear of radioactivity from nuclear power plants and their waste. Our regulatory regime treats a life lost to exposure to radioactivity from nuclear energy and its waste as being 100 to 10,000 times more valuable than a life lost to air pollution from burning fossil fuels and biofuels. Because of this we made nuclear power so expensive and unpopular in the 1980's that we stopped building new reactors, and instead built fossil fuel (mainly coal) powered reactors. This has resulted in many millions of avoidable deaths every year and has dramatically accelerated climate change. Despite the fact that nuclear energy, including the older reactors built under the previous regulatory regimes, have turned out to be the safest form of reliable energy, those regulations have never been made more rational. We could decarbonise much faster and have much cheaper electricity if we make regulations more reasonable. Fear stops us.

We are now treating anthropogenic climate change as being such a serious risk that we are seriously considering policies which will kill millions of people, by increasing energy poverty and slowing economic growth in low and middle income countries. This is nuts as the current projections indicate a minimal if any increase in mortality from warming. While more will die from extreme heat, fewer will die from extreme cold - which currently kills far more people than extreme heat, especially in low and middle income countries. In the past 20 years warming in the UK has resulted in 500,000 fewer deaths!

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I wouldn't even call it a subculture. It's as if hopelessness has infiltrated all our minds. Hopelessness is our worst enemy. If an enemy can make you believe you have already lost, then this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The theme of hopelessness, of resistance being futile (unless equipped with superpowers) is a very common theme in popular culture. We are being played.

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Feb 22, 2023·edited Feb 22, 2023

Do they think it's ineffective though? This is something that's bothered me on the Left for ages, whenever something good happens, they're quick to point out how it's 'barely making a dent' or 'we still have a long way to go'. There seems to be an underlying conviction - conscious or subconscious - that the more people think they're in a crisis, the more likely they are to act on it. So if you say 'actually gay rights are better than ever,' people will stop fighting and just give up. You need something to be a disaster to motivate them, otherwise they'll just accept the status quo.

This is obviously wrong in my opinion, but I really think people like Taylor Lorenz there think that way. Was it really an expression of despair, or was it a call to action? Or maybe just signalling that you're SUCH a good person that it OVERWHELMS you that there's injustice in the world. Or maybe, and I think this is a big part of it, a certain type of neurotic personality is overrepresented in the online media. But I do think on some level, the people tweeting these things think it IS motivational and stirring rather than hopeless.

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Feb 22, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Doomers have to reinforce their belief systems by regular pronouncements of doom especially when evidence goes against their world view. Otherwise things will be to them just too optimistic. It is an obvious case of hypochondria.

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"In other words, climate change is definitely going to be a bumpy ride for the planet, and it’s not yet certain that we’ll defeat it in time to save ourselves from major harm. But recent progress is extremely encouraging." That's a rather trite dismissal for a risk that is near-existential, don't you think?

The best-available evidence currently suggests that we aren't on track for the absolute *worst* scenarios envisioned by Climate Change modelers (leading to a Hothouse Earth scenario and human extinction in our or our children's lifetimes), but celebrating that is like celebrating that an immanent nuclear war wouldn't finish off absolutely everyone. Look at the bright side! Even if it's, err, a little hard to do stuck underground in this sun-less bunker, eating farmed mushrooms and yeast...

Because the default case right now is that we're headed for 2.5C+ warming, which is (and I'll quote you here) literally *above* "the point where words like 'catastrophic' start to make sense." That's not a fringe Doomer theory. It's the working hypothesis of the IPCC. So, we're heading right toward catastrophic warming. What is encouraging about that, exactly? That it doesn't match the most hysterical pessimism of the Near-Term Human Extinction crowd?

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My issue with Doomerism is several of the most prolific writers in that genre, if we can call it that, often don't include statistics to back up their claims. I also suspect at least a few of them found a lot more success/views/money with these extremely negative outlook pieces, especially on places like Medium and Substack, and started focusing and churning out these essays almost exclusively.

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Feb 22, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Great post as always but there was a follow up tweet where she admits there haven't been any better points of US history she would rather live through, it's all just bad vibes. I think there's a real chance her job of spending all day on social media is making her borderline mentally ill, people have gone from venting to friends about whatever to making any moment of unhappiness into a world ending crisis level event so that they can get some likes

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I'm appalled by the number of intelligent people who apparently think that because there's climate change, it might be unethical and/or pointless to have children.

I hope most of the people who talk about this are just virtue-signaling, but I'm sure some of them are serious. How are they going to feel in 2040, when the problem will be visibly on its way to being solved but it will be too late for them to change their minds?

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Hey Noah, I love this: "One obvious move is to follow Taylor Lorenz’ own advice, and get off of social media a little more."

And I think some people should not use social media at all.

Thanks for this brilliant post.

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Feb 22, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

For as long as I can remember, decades now, it has been cool to be cynical. Being cynical was 'woke' before 'woke', a signal that you understood the world more incisively than the madding crowd.

Thank you for a more balanced view.

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This is a little bit of an aside, but as someone who is very much not a doomer, your statement that "almost all of us are going to [die] without accomplishing at least some of the stuff we wanted to do," jumped out at me.

While I would prefer to live another 50 years, if I died tomorrow, there is very little that I would regret not accomplishing or doing. My personal goals were/are basically to get married, have a kid and maybe become a judge. I've accomplished the first two (as most people who want to do manage). The third is kind of just a bonus if I manage it and not something I will regret in any way if I fail.

When it comes to national or world (or even state or local) affairs, while I tend to be more optimistic about these things than most, there are certainly things I would prefer to see changed. At the same time, I would hardly put any of these things in the "things I want to do/accomplish," largely because I have little sense that I have any agency at these scales. I'm not going to solve, or even make a significant dent in climate change, or toxic partisanship or Russia's invasion of Ukraine. I'm probably not even going to make a dent in my Town's anti-development stance. Admittedly, I'm not trying very hard on any of these fronts, but I tend to believe that, even if put my full effort into any one of these causes, I'm not going to make a dent. For some people this seems to lead to a nihilistic downward spiral. At least for me, it leads to a nihilistic contentment - why get upset about not being able to change something I can't change, might as well get upset about not being able to flap my arms and fly.

I'll say my wife is just the opposite, she has a lot of things she wants or wishes she could accomplish in life. She also tends to be depressed.

I wonder how much of the much-discussed depressed youth comes from believing you can change things and then being unable to do so. Twitter certainly give you the sense you can change things while really not providing most people with the ability to do so.

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Feb 22, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

As we know, half of Rushmore suffered clinical depression (Lincoln, Roosevelt) and it didn’t deter them from moving forward with progressive policies and ideas. So many manic depressives, e.g. Hemingway and Fitzgerald and the so-called “Lost Generation.” Depression is as American as apple pie. Thankfully, society has progressively bleached the stigmata of depression.

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Feb 22, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

It's warm in Chicago this winter - THE APOCALYPSE IS NIGH.

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Many years ago I was reading an author I disagreed with a fair amount, both of us being roughly conservatives. His name is Russell Kirk. At that time, almost all conservatives like Kirk were announcing the imminent end of civilization. In this one place I can't remember or find again, Kirk said that there was nothing to worry about the 60s, it was just part of the ebb and flow, back and forth, that was always our situation in society as history rolled along, sometimes merrily, sometimes not. Wherever I got it, that's been my belief ever since.

I also remind myself that when I was kid, I learned Blacks couldn't go into various places and that people tried to exterminate my religion from the face of the Earth just a few years earlier. That seemed a much scarier world and always has. There are always tons of people expecting the end of days. In fact, the First Christians did. Lots of them still around today. Go figure. We're not really that smart. When we do go kaputt we'll be the last to know.

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Great essay Noah. I agree we need to have more realistic optimism given the recent advances in climate control measures and the spending supporting that effort. Also need to recognize, as you do Noah, that technology can be a huge force for major advances in climate control as well as in Medical and other disciplines.

A sense of hopelessness is self defeating. The two years of the remarkable Biden Administration has given me renewed hope in the US. We have become a better and stronger country in spite of the MAGA republicans. The struggle continues but there is reason to be hopeful.

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Feb 22, 2023·edited Feb 22, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

A critical component is doomerism as a self-defense mechanism. Our culture doesn't prioritize self-reflection ("what did I do wrong, what could I have done better") so doomerism was invented to protect people from interrogating what is really, deep down, their own psychological neuroses.

I don't have to reflect on what's wrong with me - I'm being realistic. The problem is that *you* don't understand what kind of world we're living in. You're the crazy one, not me. I see the world for what it really is - that's why I stay inside. You would do the same if you were rational like I am.

It's just millennial gaslighting. I hope it doesn't infect gen-z further.

Recall that a millennial national treasure created a netflix special predicated on this exact idea and was praised by critics.

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