Aaron Wildavsky proposed in 1987 that cultural orientations such as egalitarianism and individualism frame public perceptions of technological risks, and since then a body of empirical research has grown to affirm the risk-framing effects of personality and culture (Dake, 1991; Gastil et al., 2005; Kahan, 2008). Most of these studies, however, have focused on relatively mundane risks, such as handguns, nuclear power, genetically modified food, and cellphone radiation. In the contemplation of truly catastrophic risks - risks to the future of the species from technology or natural threats - a different and deeper set of cognitive biases come into play, the millennial, Utopian, or apocalyptic psychocultural bundle, a characteristic dynamic of eschatological beliefs and behaviours. This essay is an attempt to outline the characteristic forms millennialism has taken, and how it biases assessment of catastrophic risks and the courses of action necessary to address them.
Millennialism is the expectation that the world as it is will be destroyed and replaced with a perfect world, that a redeemer will come to cast down the evil and raise up the righteous (Barkun, 1974; Cohn, 1970). Millennialism is closely tied to other historical phenomena, utopianism, apocalypticism, messianism, and millenarian violence. Western historians of millenialism have focused the most attention on the emergence of Christianity out of the messianic expectations of subjugated Jewry and subsequent Christian movements based on exegesis of the Book of Revelations expecting imminent return of Christ. But the millennial impulse is pancultural, found in many guises and with many common tropes from Europe to India to China, across the last several thousand years. When Chinese peasants followed religio-political revolutionaries claiming the mantle of the Coming Buddha, and when Mohammed birthed Islam preaching that the Last Judgement was imminent, they exhibited many similar features to medieval French peasants leaving their fields to follow would-be John the Baptists. Nor is the millennial impulse restricted to religious movements and beliefs in magical or supernatural agency. Revolutionary socialism and fascism embodied the same impulses and promises, although purporting to be based on science, das Volk, and the secular state instead of prophecy, the body of believers, and the Kingdom of Heaven (Rhodes, 1980; Rowley, 1983).
In this essay I will review some of the various ways in which the millennial impulse has manifested. Then I will parse contemporary secular expectations about catastrophic risks and Utopian possibility for signs of these characteristic millennial dynamics. Finally, I will suggest that by avoiding the undertow of the psychocultural dysfunctions and cognitive biases that often accompany millennialism, we may be able to better anticipate the real benefits and threats that we face in this era of accelerating change and take appropriate prophylactic action to ensure a promising future for the human race.
Continue reading here: Types of millennialism
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