Clowns on parade

It is unfortunate that Charles Mackay is no longer alive to add yet another chapter or two to his insightful book of human follies, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.  First published in 1841, his book chronicles in sixteen examples of crowd psychology with some of the notable economic and social foibles of the past.  The preface includes his observation that "[w]e find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds on one object, and go mad in its pursuit: that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion and run after it, til their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first."

Chapter headings include The Mississippi Scheme, The South-Sea Bubble, The Tulipomania, Fortune-Telling, The Magnetisers, The Crusades, and The Witch Mania.  These and the other chapters were chosen by Mackay to illustrate recurring but  transient moral and economic epidemics, and to "show how easily the masses have been led astray, and how imitative and gregarious men are, even in their infatuations and crimes."  The foreword by Bernard Baruch in the 1932 edition references Schiller's dictum: "Anyone taken as an individual is tolerably sensible and reasonable – as a member of a crowd he at once becomes a blockhead."

In current vernacular, "blockhead" seems quaint.  Current terminology would be more organic; however, the message is the same.

Fast-forward almost two centuries, and those truisms remain valid and are illustrated by even more outrageous acts of mass hysteria.  At the moment, a prime example is the United Nations COP21 in Paris, France.  The official title is Conference of Parties, number 21.  Mackay might have well termed it Crowds on Parade or perhaps Clowns on Parade.  Either title is descriptive of the mass hysteria exhibited by various political entities and individuals alike, who have convened there in their belief that control of the global climate depends on offerings to the carbon dioxide demon and the elimination of the fossil fuel witch.  Burning at the stake is not acceptable because of the carbon dioxide carbon footprint incurred.

Mackay's chapter on Witch Mania provides a useful historical reference for simplistic tendencies in human nature to search out and label one entity as the guilty party, which is then hounded to death, literally.  He notes: "There are so many wondrous appearances in nature for which science and philosophy cannot even now account, that it is not surprising that when natural laws were still less understood, men should have attributed to supernatural agency  every appearance which they could not otherwise explain."  Our present lack of a valid scientific understanding of climate in its myriad manifestations and its  complex web of interdependency on ill-defined physical variables mirrors Mackay's observation.

Life-sustaining carbon dioxide has been targeted as the modern-day witch by the "climate COPs."  Tens of thousands of imagined witches were put to death in the 1500s-1600s before that mania had run its course.  At COP21, an estimated 40,000 attendees compose a crowd mad about the fact that the climate changes relentlessly without any need for human intervention.  That frustration needs an outlet, and the crowd has targeted fossil fuels and carbon dioxide.

These modern-day witch hunters have the potential to kill millions by denying the poor and less developed civilizations the benefits of reliable and relatively inexpensive energy.  Those more fortunate will be forced to pay tribute to this crowd to keep their modern lifestyle, which now runs on electrical devices 24/7.

Mackay might also find room for a few additional chapters in a revised edition of his original book should he read the current press and note the reports of students conducting mass demonstrations on campus, and the racial unrest on Main Street.

Charles G. Battig, M.S., M.D., Piedmont Chapter president, VA-Scientists and Engineers for     Energy and Environment (VA-SEEE).  His website is

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