And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season. And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.Revelation 20:2-4
The word millenarianism, the belief in a Utopia brought about through revolutionary action, comes from the above religious prophecy promising a thousand-year reign of God on Earth in the Book of Revelation. Appearing to be prominent in times of technological and intellectual advancement coinciding with economic or political hardship, millenarian movements often manifest as fanatical and cult-like groups. And there are two which have developed distinction in recent years. The first is the global movement to prevent climate change, and the other is the global movement to replace fiat currencies with Bitcoin.
Society is groping in the dark toward new animating principles, in the United States especially, trying to conjure a structure which will fit the individual into the collective. Beyond the principles of democracy, human rights, race, and materialist ideology which so moved and integrated people in the past, there is nothing which appears on the horizon, over the next hill, in the future to bind us together. Instead of bliss and harmony and hope, all we seem to be able to elicit are dystopias, visions of the horrors of dull, governmental complexity and corruption and the destruction of the most basic facets of nature. It may be that Bitcoin and climate change tell us more about ourselves and how we feel about our societies than they do about the course of events in the future.
These two new millenarian movements of climate change-activism and Bitcoin-advocacy are concerned with forestalling doom and ushering in a rejuvenated Utopia, and both are moving into direct conflict with one another. This conflict was painted vividly recently in the nearest thing we have to the symbolic temple of our society: the financial markets.
The sudden drop in price of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies last week (5/19) was attended by a series of negative-seeming news events. Here, I should interrupt myself to say: it is a prudent practice to refrain from stating what directly caused such a sell-off, and who can say how it will be remembered, as people will write a history with knowledge of subsequent events. Regardless, there was a sell-off with several negative news stories that coincided or immediately preceded the sell-off, including a Bitcoin ban in China and the previous month’s explosion in the price of other cryptocurrencies – thereby potentially threatening the perceived ability of Bitcoin to continue to lead the cryptocurrency market. More noteworthy than these other news stories was an Elon Musk (CEO of the electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla) tweet stating that Tesla was no longer accepting Bitcoin to purchase their vehicles because of the negative impact Bitcoin has on climate change. I think what happened is that Tesla and Musk realized that “climate change” was a more powerful narrative than “Bitcoin.”
Tesla is an interesting case of the intersection between the two narrative groupings. Musk insinuated himself into cryptocurrency debates by commenting on them, by having his company purchase Bitcoin, and by announcing he would allow cars to be purchased with Bitcoin. By doing this Musk partially ties his company to cryptocurrency and Bitcoin in public consciousness. To a large extent, Tesla also relies on the goodwill of people who support his electric vehicle company because of its positive impact on climate change for its continuing success in its actual stated enterprise. Tesla, therefore, becomes a perfect natural experiment to observe a contest between these two movements as they diverge.
The latest round of the “Bitcoin vs. Climate Change” argument was initiated from an important and respected source: a University of Cambridge study showing how much energy BTC mining was consuming compared to entire countries – publicized on Feb. 10th, 2021. The Bitcoin-advocacy community has responded with a host of statements and writings seeking to debunk this idea (a veritable flood, perhaps a recognition of the potency of the climate change challenge).
The “BTC is driving climate change” argument (whether legitimate or not) is much more potent than some people realized. Younger people, especially, are concerned about the future of the planet – it’s a huge narrative vulnerability for almost any institution anywhere in the so-called developed world that refuses to acknowledge the problem of climate change. Just today, May 26th, the board of oil company ExxonMobil was shaken-up by activist investors who want the company to take bolder action against climate change – a stunning development.
I used to dismiss the power of the climate change argument simply because I could not see the point in worrying about it. Maybe it’s too late to stop? Maybe we’re wrong? And what can I do anyway?
What an enormous mistake for understanding the times!
“Eco-anxiety,” the fear that the future of life on earth is imperiled, is the opposite side of the coin of Utopianism – a fear of impending doom. And it is apparently a common enough problem to be addressed by the American Psychological Association. Uncertainty about the future seems to be the main fear (and again, uncertainty about the financial future drives Bitcoin-advocacy as well) animating people to take strong actions, and it also motivates unshakeable beliefs. Fear is also exploitable.
All this uncertainty manifests itself differently in different places, depending on local concerns, but one commonality is that nothing much seems to ever get done for either movement, despite promises and pronouncements by governments and institutions. This suggests to me that the passions surrounding the two movements are more important than the stated goals, that they are more useful as hammers for those who can try to wield them than as actual policy objectives. But there are practical considerations for this immobility as well.
An aspect of climate change that causes difficulty for its advocates in changing the apparent course of action is its geographical asymmetry. Populations in Europe and America are worried about global warming, not so in the countries still struggling with substantial poverty or who feel themselves in unequal competition with those wealthier nations. This also offers an interesting parallel with Bitcoin. While there may not be much use in America now for Bitcoin, there is certainly use for it in places with despotic regimes and collapsing economies.
Along with nothing much being done about climate change or in changing the global financial system, vagueness is a feature of claims about climate change and Bitcoin, making them useful as rhetoric. Climate change, because it’s so amorphous and so abstract and so unknown while also being potentially world-ending, is an excellent vector of attack against almost anything, on almost any timeline. There is certainty, a solidity, in saying that world can reduce carbon emissions to zero at some point in the future, if only we take common sense actions now! Bitcoin is inherently vague as all claims about it lie in the future and with few practical uses now. Cryptocurrencies are themselves abstractions, suitable for pure speculation. They are gold-like in that there is not much real, tangible value – and yet, what both gold and cryptocurrencies have in common is the illusion of safety and permanence in an unsafe and impermanent world. The price of Bitcoin has appreciated substantially over time, but it is no closer to being used as an alternative to fiat currencies than it was 10 years ago. The similarities don’t stop there either.
Both movements call for the erasure of the self while seeming to offer independence. Bitcoin promises a good life for all through collective action and mass adoption while touting the individual liberty of anonymity and permissionless structures. Climate change activists call for global reduction and eventual elimination of fossil fuel use but emphasize the importance of individual decision-making in creating this new energy regime – through vegetarianism or riding a bike to work instead of driving a car, for example. Independence of thought can be impaired by fear and hope. Those wonderful inborn, and ductile, traits, which are so stretchable and manipulatable, present themselves most powerfully in periods of upheaval and corruption – and now the cultish aspects of millenarianism show themselves. Self-denial and self-punishment are themes that reach deep into the past of our societies, they have just taken a different form.
Flagellants, who mortified their flesh by whipping their backs as a sign of penance, came to prominence during a crisis of faith in Medieval Europe. This crisis was of the corruption of the clergy of the Catholic Church, and to a lesser extent, secular authorities. Among the innumerable revolts and wars that bloodied the fields and dirt roads of Europe were a substantial number of uprisings of impoverished and oppressed peasants, encouraged by recalcitrant, mystic, and often excommunicated clergy rebelling against the decayed, hollow forms of institutions like the Church.
Millenarianism used to concern religious matters, with economic considerations being secondary to the zeal for penance and the ecstasy of revelation. Now we have two prominent millenarian movements whose primary concerns are the ecology of the planet and the monetary base of governments; is there any clearer indication that we’ve traded God for mammon?
Hope humbly then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher Death; and God adore!
What future bliss, he gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.Essay on Man, Epistle I, by Alexander Pope
We must make our own justice on Earth, no power is going to do it for us. This desire for justice, something forever lacking to some extent, is a powerful mover and motivator of social movements. This search for justice and an associated organizing principle for society has inspired these two excited millenarian movements (or cults, as I’ve called them elsewhere): one for justice in environmental matters – the climate change movement, and the other for justice in economic and governmental matters – the Bitcoin-advocacy movement.
Climate change is winning the battle for minds versus Bitcoin, and while there may be mundane reasons for this, that it is was taught as a problem to children in schools for instance, there may be more powerful forces at work. I am not suggesting that climate change activists are wrong, or that Bitcoin advocates are right, or any conceivable combination of such claims. What I am suggesting is that the climate change narrative currently threatening Bitcoin’s prominence contains similar beliefs and springs from similar concerns as the cryptocurrency movement, and that the fears generated from climate change reach deeper into our minds than the fears of economic dislocation.
In our faithless society people hunger for mystical and spiritual nourishment. A void of meaning must be filled to dull ravening nihilism, and desire for the lost simplicity, abundance, and beauty of nature can be fulfilling.
Hope is only sustainable if the object of that hope never comes to fruition. The greater the struggle for the mass-adoption of Bitcoin and the greater the struggle to implement climate change-preventing technologies and policies, the greater the appeal of both of these millenarian movements and the greater the danger that they will be manipulated to ends not intended by their advocates. It is incumbent on us to be skeptical: Utopia is always over the next hill, but never appears after the climb.
 A fun fact, on Oct. 24th, 1929 – “Black Thursday,” remembered as the beginning of the 1929 stock market crash, the market only ended down about 2% from its open.