The Allure of End Times

23:56 Sun 18 Mar 2007. Updated: 03:08 19 Mar 2007
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What is the allure of believing that we’re in the last days of the world? (For “world”, you can substitute “civilization as we know it”, “era”, “good times”, and so on.) The allure of thinking that our times are the end times is powerful indeed, and has been throughout history.

The fact that it has been throughout history, of course, is what makes it rather ironic… we presumably should be able to tell from past events that warnings of the coming apocalypse are wrong rather a lot of the time.

Not always, which is presumably what lets us think that this time, it might really be the end for us.

This happened around 2000, of course, and was exacerbated by the panic about the Y2K bug. But actual evidence of possible problems apparently aren’t needed for end-of-the-world ideas to take root. The idea that the Mayans had it all worked out and everything will go bye-bye in 2012 is an example of this… although really we should learn from our experience with 2000 and see 2012 more clearly as mundane, the equivalent of running out of digits.

Is peak oil theory, with its grim predictions for what will happen when cheap oil runs out, another end-times delusion, or is it a lucid warning of upcoming systemic collapse? I haven’t yet read Jared Diamond’s Collapse, but it’s clear that many civilizations/economic systems have failed in human history, and we shouldn’t assume ours is any exception. Even so, I’m suspicious that there’s a darkly Romantic appeal to the idea, as it throws the everyday into stark relief. Is that not part of the appeal of the Romantic, to give everything heightened significance and intensity, to contrast that intensity with the quotidian as we usually experience it?

Then, of course, there’s the religious belief in about-to-happen-no-really-now end times, for example the currently hugely popular premillenial dispensationalism, popularized by the Left Behind series, which appears to have convinced a large chunk of the American population that they’re going to witness the literal end of the world, and in fact that they might be able to bring it about. (How is it still “God’s plan” if you’re able to invoke the Second Coming via some ritual?)

I think that the appeal is beyond the purely religious, and goes to the lure of being able to dispense with what we think of as the trivial. And there’s an aspect of mortality-avoidance there, not just for those who believe in an afterlife, but in the sense that if the world is going to end in your lifetime, your mortality is different from that of those who in the past have been surivived by others.

The links that inspired this post:
A video presentation by John Hagee
A scholarly refutation of the idea that Ezekiel:38 and 39 point to modern-day events. (Interesting to me despite a lack of belief in biblical teaching, because it shows how much of a stretch from source material a lot of today’s popular “Christian” doctrine is.)

7 Responses to “The Allure of End Times”

  1. Lev Says:

    A thought-provoking post, given my fascination with predicting/anticipating the future.

    Would it be hubris to propose that there may exist a critical mass of knowledge and technology that grants a civilization a hardiness to catastrophic events? For instance, with the redundancy of knowledge made possible by the wide dissemination of information through teh Internets, could it be that our civilization is unlikely to take a step backward into a Dark Age? I haven’t read Collapse yet, but I’m familiar with some of the stories in that back. Barring massive ecological changes such as through full-out nuclear war or meteor strikes, I’m pretty sure that we are unlikely to fall back to the primitive level of technology depicted in the standard Mad Max or Canticle for Liebowitz scenario.

    However, I’m not sure whether we have yet reached this “golden age” of knowledge, or whether (if ever attained) such a state would be long-lived.

  2. NiallM Says:

    I rather suspect that this ‘critical mass’ that you outline above, while it is an interesting concept, would not in actual fact be a meaningful barrier to catastrophic events. Your example above, for instance, pre-supposes that the important thing is the knowledge, and that with sufficient humans to interpret it and carry it out, nothing important is lost.

    In fact the important thing is the humans. Consider the impact of a 90%-decimating plague, for example. So much of what we do is so specialised these days, enough of a critical mass of people is required to teach the other people and provide the support systems (food, housing, etc) that enables them to learn. Running power stations etc is not something that’s likely to survive as a well-understood discipline after such a decimating event. I have greater faith in books surviving a catastrophe because at least they do not need a power station.

  3. Lev Says:

    Good point, Niall. I’m assuming that if there is sufficient redundancy of knowledge, the remaining humans (however few or far-flung) will eventually be able to pick up the pieces and get back to where we were. There are in fact a number of scenarios for near total annihilation of humanity and/or environmental disruption that would make all of that knowledge irrelevant (David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas envisions one such scenario). But I still maintain that with the existing level of information redundancy combined with large human populations, events that would in the past have been catastrophic for a civilization are today merely disruptive, not disastrous. Consider the influenza epidemic of 1918… 50-100 millions deaths, but today only a footnote to history.

  4. Tadhg Says:

    It all depends on the nature of the catastrophe/collapse in question. We have so many to choose from: the end of cheap oil causing economic breakdown on an unprecedented scale; agricultural ruin thanks to climate change or monocultural reliance; the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera; meteor impact; plagues of various kinds.

    In certain respects I think we’re close to this “critical mass” of knowledge that would facilitate a recovery—we can disseminate more information more widely more easily than at any point in history. Sure, a lot of that relies on cheap electronics, but enough cheap electronics means redundancy. If every iPod had a Wikipedia equivalent on it that contained a significant chunk of what would be required to recover from some catastrohic event, that would be pretty damn useful. (Note: I’m not actually advocating Wikipedia as the blueprint for rebuilding civilization… but there aren’t many other centralized Free repositories out there— and I don’t think Conservapedia counts…)

    At the same time, I also suspect that our global infrastructure might be rather more fragile than we think, and susceptible to disruption in many unforeseen ways that might prove lethal in the event of some catastrophic event. And as Niall pointed out, we always need power.

    Lastly, any discussion of how society copes with catastrophe requires a reading of Rebecca Solnit’s The Uses of Disaster.

  5. God's Mom Says:

    It is fortunate for you that I have happened upon this place. Oh how very lucky for you indeed Mister O’Higgins! Nay, for all of you dear readers! For I have chosen to bring my considerable knowledge and fierce powers of deduction to bear on the question at hand.

    Now, down to the business. Your instincts are correct sir, it is true that apocalyptic fascination must go deeper than religiosity. Although, considerable credit must be given to our featherbrained Christian brothers for their tenacious Armageddonish preoccupation. Two-thousand years of absolute certainty that rescue from this world of the wicked is nearly at hand. Bravo! They are a powerful influence no doubt!

    Yet, what are we to make of our more sober minded friends? The non-believers, who nonetheless sprout sadistic little erections at the very thought of some unholy force of nature smashing their sisters into oblivion? Why is mass destruction so appealing to them? It is thanks to pain, envy, resentment, and frustration that they would love to see the world and all living things in it punished!

    And now you, my favored fellows, have your answer. The fascination on all sides stems from a desire for two things at once. A desperate desire to be released from the pain of existence fused with the deeply human desire for vengeance. Yes, deeply human! For what is vengeance other than the instinct for dominance, which in turn was born from the more fundamental instinct for self preservation, which have all been twisted together through many millennia of human evolution in this often perverse and ruthless world.

    A final word of warning, men hide their wicked souls from each other because these answers are not meant for your ears! So dwell not on truth too deeply my friend, lest it lead you to ruin!

  6. kevintel Says:

    Oh great. It’s Doris Lessing.

  7. Tadhg Says:

    I don’t really buy the idea that people have “wicked souls”. Some do, probably. But as beings with the capacity for love, compassion, and reason, I think what’s in people’s “souls” matters a lot less than what people do, and regardless of what instincts we may or may not have, we have a responsibility to use those capacities, and not to fall back on fear, wishful thinking, and lazy assumptions.

    Nevertheless, it may be true that desires for vengeance (arising from the slave mentality observed by Nietzsche) and dominance aid the allure of ideas that we’re just about to see our enemies washed away in a wave of bloody righteousness—but what about those End Times beliefs that involve everyone dying, not merely the enemies? I think that goes back to the desire to augment one’s sense of special meaning by insisting that one’s own era is special, critical.

    As for dwelling on truth… we need to know truth so that we can know what is, and adapt to it. Otherwise we live in unreality, which seems to me more likely to lead to ruin.

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