Sunday, November 22, 2009

The trouble with apocalypse

Although for us the End has perhaps lost its naive imminence, its shadow still lies on the crises of our fictions.

When you read, as you must almost every passing day, that ours is the great age of crisis--technological, military, cultural--you may well simply nod and proceed calmly to your business; for this assertion, upon which a multitude of important books is founded, is nowadays no more surprising than the opinion that the earth is round.
                                      --Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending

The trouble with apocalypse is that most people have already seen it at the movie theater, watched it on television, read it in a book, or heard all about it from the pulpit. So inundated with the language of crisis are we that we have become immune to it. From the perspective of the historian our age has been chock full of "great transformations." And, it is, after all, the historian's business to write about great change even if he or she has to invent some.

The great energy crisis of the 1970s passes and is followed by an era of cheap energy lasting more than 20 years. The great run-up in energy prices in recent years is followed by a collapse in prices. The "worst economic downturn since the Great Depression" is now being followed by a ceaselessly heralded recovery. The much feared Y2K computer bug was either fixed or of little consequence on January 1, 2000. A modern plague has been in the wings for years, first as SARS and then as avian flu. Now that the H1N1 virus is here, it doesn't seem like the civilization-destroying event it was advertised to be. Even such events, despite the drama they propagate, create a certain cyclical continuity making them seem not all that remarkable. Once the worst is over or the predicted crisis fails to materialize, the fear that most people felt fades from memory.

Yet, the "cultural crisis," the "economic crisis," the "health care crisis," the "education crisis," and the "national security crisis" somehow continue. We momentarily look away from our computers, cellphones and flat screen TVs. Then, we are back again to our routine. Yesterday we had email, today we have email, tomorrow we will have email. On the short view, nothing much seems to have changed. The world appears to be moving closer to the technological utopia we have been promised.

For human beings, the apocalypse in its many forms "is a figure for their own deaths," Frank Kermode remarks in his classic of literary criticism, The Sense of an Ending. He adds, "[W]hat human need could be more profound than to humanize the common death?" And, so we are wired to listen, at least temporarily, whenever a storyteller of any type on television, on radio, on the Internet, in movies, and on the printed page hoists the flag of crisis. Any reference to crisis improves ratings and book sales. If what you're telling me isn't a crisis that requires my immediate attention, perhaps it can wait until later when I'm through looking at my email or watching my favorite spinoff of Law and Order.

Such is the environment in which those concerned about sustainability for human society find themselves. Peak oil, climate change, an impending food crisis, a water crisis, none of these truly captures the imagination of the broader public and rouses it to action. Perhaps the public is suffering from apocalypse fatigue. But that would be an incorrect assumption. One need look no further than the movie screen this holiday season. The movie 2012, a series of visual explosions based on various disaster scenarios and end time prophecies, is a runaway hit. The movie trailer tells us that one particular day in 2012 will be a moment that unites us all, very much "the common death" that Kermode discusses. And, the movie is not a cultural one-off. The same director gave us the climate change thriller, The Day After Tomorrow, which has grossed nearly $200 million at the box office. The appetite for apocalypse is endless and perennial. When I was in seventh grade (a long time ago), Alas, Babylon, a novel about a small town that survives after a nuclear war, was actually required reading.

What apocalyptic narratives do is elevate the importance of the trajectory of every person's life regardless of his or her station in society. If we're all in this together, then we can share in a great destiny no matter who we are. But destiny sounds like fate. What can one do if one is headed toward a great apocalypse? Pray, perhaps. Repent, maybe. But responding to such a gargantuan event calls more for attaining the right relationship with one's god than engaging in constructive social and political action.

While apocalyptic stories may seem as if they are about our collective path, for the individual they are really about an inward journey. That is why they can be quite good at filling movie theaters, bookstores, and churches. And, that is why appeals to the apocalyptic strain in culture are wrongheaded when attempting to move people toward actual concrete steps that can improve our collective prospects amid the unfolding calamities of the 21st century.


Henry Warwick said...

people WANT apocalypse. It absolves them of responsibility. They don't have to do anything - "Ope - look - end of the world - oh well..."

People would rather have a nuclear armageddon than have to face a world that has no Dr Pepper and vacations in Las Vegas. They are that stupid.

My problem with apocalypse, and apocalyptic thinking in general, is that is acts as an excuse for inaction, and thus, even though it seems radical, is - in actuality - an endorsement of the status quo and business as usual. So when I see peak oil types go on about the end of civilisation and how we are all doomed I just ignore them.

They truly don't "get it". And they likely never will. It's easy to think we're all fucked. It's easier to think that than to come up with convincing solutions or plans for mitigation. When I deal with peak oil doomers I get REALLY angry, very quickly. I have no time for these useless morons. If things are all that bad, then kindly go kill yourself NOW and stop depriving the rest of us the oxygen you are wasting with your ignorant narcissistic rants.


MikeB said...

Nice, succinct statement, Kurt.

Now, I don't know if "apocalypse" represents an "inner journey," but as someone who teaches biblical writings from a secular, skeptical perspective, I will say nearly everyone I've read who invokes "apocalypse" --either FOR or AGAINST peak oil-- seem to have no idea what the biblical idea is!

"apocalypse" doesn't even mean "end of the world" or "destruction." It simply means "unveiling" or "revelation," usually indicated as coming from God. So when Paul had visions of the risen Christ, they came by apocalypsis.

the "end times"/"last days" scenarios sketched out (in contradictory ways) by multiple biblical "prophets" have several distinct features that the "peak oil" scenarios simply lack:

a: end of world. Physical destruction of the world ensues via God. No such phenomenon is even hinted at by peak oil.

b: the long-awaited "messiach"--identified by Christians as the returning christos--comes to defeat the forces of evil. This makes "end times" a hoped for event in Christian eschatology. No such messiach or longing exist in peak oil scenarios, green or otherwise.

c: "signs" of the times. All biblical "prophecies" of the End Times are accompanied by astrological and geological "signs" that foretell imminent doom, such as flaming objects striking the planet and earthquakes. Nothing like that exists in peak oil scenarios.

d: "anti-christ," (a term which ONLY appears in the letters of 1 "John" and 2 "John," by the way), concerning a coming preacher of false doctrine, is completely absent in peak oil thinking. This creature is confused/identified with the various visions of "beasts," "dragons," "whores of Babylon," and "little horns" in the writings of the multiple intoxicated prophets, Old and New Testaments.

M. King Hubbert is neither anti-christ nor messiach.

The world is not going to end, though many of us might wish it had.

Economic distress is likely to result in a spike of "apocalyptic" thinking, in the same way that Antiochus Epiphanes' and General Titus' profanations of the Temple in Jerusalem (two separate events hundreds of years apart) caused multiple outbursts of "apocalyptic" scribbling in the Middle East.

But I consider such thinking entirely beside the point.

Invocations of "apocalypse" (people probably really mean "Armageddon," the final battle indicated only in the "Revelation to John" when they use that term) are overstatements, hyperboles, misrepresentations that simply distract us from the work of adapting to a new, likely awful (because unprepared-for) set of circumstances.

Chris R. said...


Great article. I would agree that if an issue or threat isn't acute or imminent, the majority of people tend to want to deal with the their own personal concerns or mechanisms of escape. Yet apocalypse (or more accurately some form of major cultural disruption) may serve a purpose if one believes that the transition to a new state is survivable.

The transition groups in my area put it very well by noting that their primary goals relate to building a better society that is sustainable and just. But, they also acknowledge that no matter what they do or what anyone else does, things might just go to hell anyway, and it would be foolish not to prepare for that possibility.

That may not be "apocalyptic" thinking specifically but does envision the possibility of collapse and if one is prudent, there's no question that collapse is one scenario that while not "likely", is certainly quite plausible.

Again, great piece.

Christopher R.
The Localizer Blog

Kurt Cobb said...

Let me respond to the comments thus far:

I do wish that Henry would stop sugarcoating his views and let us know what he really thinks. But, seriously, I agree with much of what he says. I do feel, however, that the doomers serve a purpose, namely, to keep alive the imagination of the worst that is possible. I explained my reasoning in Why Doomer Porn Is Good For You on this blog. That said, I wouldn't appoint doomers to run the publicity committee for my Transition Town group.

I want to thank MikeB for giving us an excellent disquisition on the meaning and use of the word "apocalypse" and associated terms as they relate to Christian religious thinking. I will respond to his skepticism that preoccupation with apocalypse represents an inner journey. My experience is that people who are preoccupied with what they believe is an impending literal apocalypse often have other "endings" approaching in their lives, for example, a crumbling marriage, a dying relative, job loss or a business that is in danger of going under, and occasionally a serious condition that puts them at risk of premature and perhaps sudden death. They project these closer-to-home "endings" out onto the world at large and interpret their feelings of impending doom as a universal feeling. I am not saying this is always the case. But I observe it so often that I believe it accounts for much of what is labeled as doomer thinking.

As you can see from my response to Henry, I think Christopher R. has it just about right.

Henry Warwick said...

I was thinking more of people like Matt Savinar.

Rice Farmer said...

I'm not sure people want REAL apocalypse, that is, a collapse. What they want is a cheap thrill, and the assurance from politicians and business gurus that the Great Recession will blow over and we'll get on with our consumption and high living. "2012" is just a movie, right? People can immerse themselves in the extraordinary for a couple of hours, and then walk out of the theater into the real world where everything is just fine -- or so it appears, and that is what our Great Leaders would have us believe.

That's why movies like "2012" will make the general public say, "Great movie," and give them an exciting but safe and pleasant topic of conversation over their post-movie dinner at some nearby trendy restaurant, while Mike Ruppert's "Collapse," which talks about the real world, leaves viewers shaken.

In fact, "apocalypse," which is a very loaded word (especially as we can see from MikeB's post), is not a suitable way to describe what is happening, while "collapse" is. Collapse has happened time and time again throughout history, and it's happening again, right before our eyes.

Apocalyptic movies do nothing to make people prepare because they're just entertainment, and people know it. That's why apocalyptic thinking is "an excuse for inaction," as Henry puts it. Nothing else to see here, folks; move on to the next apocalyptic movie, which is also a fictional universe.

So if you want a cheap thrill and and then move on to talking about how we'll be vacationing on Mars in the near future, the no-risk, safe, cheap-thrills fictional world of the apocalypse is for you.

But if you want to take self-defensive action, then opening your eyes to the already-in-progress collapse is necessary.

PK:) said...

Re 2012 - I hope the end of the world doesn't last as long as the movie

James Hovland said...

After the world ends next time, can we please stop holding our breath?

john personna said...

I dropped over here after writing a "blogs you should not read" post. Sorry Kurt, you did not make the list.

If you read my page you'll see that I don't think doomers serve a purpose and that instead they anchor Peak Oil in a bad place.

Now as to how I see this relating to apocalypse and disaster movies ... I think we have to acknowledge that many in the PO movement are amateur authors. They create disaster movies of the mind, for their own titilation and to share with their peers.

It's not healthy. I mean, it could get so bad that when you see a movie like Amelia, all you can think about is PO!

mattbg said...

I think the non-fiction doomsday scenarios that never come to pass have more power in creating our immunity to them than the fictional ones do.

It is very easy to think yourself into a doomsday spiral. If all of the things that could possibly go wrong did actually go wrong then we would be in a terrible state. But, they never seem to go wrong all at once as would be required (or, their effects occur so slowly that we don't notice and are eased into a worse state at an acceptable pace that allows us to adapt).

Climate change models are doomsday models, too. Do they have no models that predict a better future for the world? Have they ever had such a model in their entire history? They won't tell us with any useful degree of certainty what we need to do to avoid disaster according to their climate models... probably because it'd be so unpalatable as to make life not really worth living, anyway. We are simply meant to keep pouring money down a hole until...what?