I’ve long been somewhat puzzled by the widespread belief in the inevitability of worldview-affirming apocalyptic scenarios. Obviously you come across everything on the internets, but there are plenty of people across the political spectrum who are quite convinced that [insert apocalyptic scenario here] is inevitable. It’s weird.
My Unified Grand Theory Of Everything (well, only some of everything, but certainly things like this) is that most irrational but passionately held beliefs tend to go straight back to the ego of the people who hold them, and their own internal crisis about identity in the face of certain mortality. I came up with this theory as a long time participant in the existential crisis of political controversies—abortion rights. Why do people say it’s such a difficult subject when, if you look at it logically, it’s quite easy to be pro-choice? Religion causes the same tumult and defensiveness around irrational positions. Abortion (and for the real fanatics, birth control) upends people’s certainty that their existence was inevitable, and that they are Very Special People. It’s not just the idea that you couldn’t be born, but also that procreation (you can live forever!) turns into a fetish. Religion soothes the ego needs to feel Very Special, because god or some force in the universe cares about you.* It often also soothes concerns about your very certain mortality, putting its certainty into question.
I think apocalypse scenarios capture the imagination because they’re a projection of our anxieties about mortality, but they also address our anxieties about not being very important in the scheme of things at all. Considering not just that you’re going to die, but that life will go on without you is humbling—which means, if you’re egotistical, humiliating. Think about it. After enough time passes, even the most famous people are forgotten, except for a few extremely unique ones like Julius Caesar, who probably didn’t even realize at the time that he was creating the sort of fame that outstripped other sorts of fame. How many of you can name all the kings of Europe throughout history? We can name all the Presidents, but that’s because our history is relatively short. Given enough time, you’ll be lucky to be a character in a history book that only a fraction of a percentage of the population will read. The fact is most of us won’t have even that. Your family will grieve you when you die, and their children will know about you, but odds are a few generations down the line, they won’t even remember your name. The impact we have in the world is limited to the length of our lives and a few years after that. Even your genetic heritage divides itself into meaninglessness in a few generations.
Apocalypse scenarios put that fear to rest, especially if the apocalypse comes in your lifetime. Consider that 55% of Americans believe in the Rapture, and then consider that pretty much all portrayals of when this will happen coming from religious leadership—from the Left Behind books to evangelical pews to the Christian Zionist movement—put it sometime next week. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but really, there’s a strong sense amongst believers that this will happen in their lifetime. The fantasy loses all appeal if it doesn’t happen in your lifetime, if you think about it, because the whole point of being Raptured is a) you don’t suffer a bodily death and b) history ends when you do, so you can’t be forgotten. Not all apocalypse fantasies are so simple-minded,** but pretty much all address this core fear that history will go on without you and you’ll be forgotten to the point where it’s like you never lived at all.
But Amanda, you may be saying now, aren’t you one of those wacky environmentalists who thinks global warming is real? Well, yes, because it is, which is sort of the trump card in these discussions. Do I think the future is bleak, especially if we don’t do something to reverse the trend? Yes, I think the cost of human and other lives will be ridiculously high. Do I think it’s the apocalypse? No. I think that people will live on, perhaps in greatly reduced numbers and in depressing circumstances, though I also caution us against thinking that our species is uniquely protected from going extinct.
I do think that there’s a real danger in apocalyptic rhetoric coming from environmentalists on this issue, even if I’ve crossed that line myself in frustration. And it’s because of this theory I’ve outlined above that the apocalypse is a comforting idea. Fundamentalist Christians who believe in the End Times are trying to hustle them in, and if global warming gets stuck in that loop, a lot of people have no reason to lift a finger against it. Telling people what they want to hear—that history is going to end in their lifetimes—is not going to get them moving. I think the more realistic vision that humanity will move on, but we could be looking at a new Dark Age of a sort that’s probably hard to even predict, will be more effective. After all, the last Dark Age was notable in no small part because so much of human history got lost to the annals of time. If you want to retain that slim chance of being remembered after your death, you’ll want to preserve civilization as we know it. Also, the slow decline in standards of living because of the global warming/oil dependency dilemma is already turning its head, and people don’t want to see a continued slide downhill.
Is there a sense that apocalyptic fantasizing is in a big upswing in our society? I say yes. The amazing growth spurt in belief in the End Times in our society is unmistakable, in fact. Why is this? I think it’s a reaction to modernity. The more people move around, the more we move from the extended family model to the individual/nuclear family model, and the less attachment we have to our work because our jobs become more about being specialized cogs in the machine, the more obvious it is that we’re going to be forgotten the second the ground turns cold. Personally, this doesn’t bother me, because all that means is that you’re facing up to the inevitable sooner. Plus, why do I care what goes on after I’m dead, since I won’t be around to see it? But being remembered as some sort of mediator against mortality matters to a lot of people, so the ugly facts laid bare by modernity are getting to people. Thus, you see more cuddling up to the End Times fantasy, the belief that history will end when you do.
*On this subject, on a total aside, I was listening to the Geological Podcast, and the host was interviewing one of those “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual” types that are presumably superior to the merely religious. I was unconvinced of this by the end of the interview. The guy was clearly leaning on the idea that his religious beliefs could be shielded from examination so long as he didn’t commit to any one—religion, crystals, yoga, it’s all the same wouldn’t you know?—and if he claimed even to be past calling the great force in the universe a god or trying to ascribe any motivations or personality to it. But he was just dripping with narcissism throughout the interview. When challenged with hard questions, he retreated behind, “Well, this works for me,” as if that’s an argument for the reality of it. And even though the force/deity has no motivations or personality, he still prayed to it every day to help him out with his finances and relationships and everything else. At least old school religion has an explanation for why you pray and why it would work, for fuck’s sake. Some people would really do better to swallow a big dose of humility. It’s okay to just let go of the idea that life is meaningless without the big ego-soothing super-important drama spirtualism crap. Certainly will make you sound like less of a simp.
**Which is no doubt why they’re less popular. If you’re crafting an irrational belief, say, putting together a religion, it does you well not to overestimate people’s intelligence. The dumber and more wish-fulfilling the better for picking up believers.