Mar 8, 2014
Posted on Feb 27, 2014
By Ira Chernus, TomDispatch
This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.
Wherever we Americans look, the threat of apocalypse stares back at us.
Two clouds of genuine doom still darken our world: nuclear extermination and environmental extinction. If they got the urgent action they deserve, they would be at the top of our political priority list.
But they have a hard time holding our attention, crowded out as they are by a host of new perils also labeled “apocalyptic”: mounting federal debt, the government’s plan to take away our guns, corporate control of the Internet, the Comcast-Time Warner mergerocalypse, Beijing’s pollution airpocalypse, the American snowpocalypse, not to speak of earthquakes and plagues. The list of topics, thrown at us with abandon from the political right, left, and center, just keeps growing.
Then there’s the world of arts and entertainment where selling the apocalypse turns out to be a rewarding enterprise. Check out the website “Romantically Apocalyptic,” Slash’s album “Apocalyptic Love,” or the history-lite documentary “Viking Apocalypse” for starters. These days, mathematicians even have an “apocalyptic number.”
So let’s lift the lid off the A-word, take a peek inside, and examine how it affects our everyday lives. Since it’s not exactly a pretty sight, it’s easy enough to forget that the idea of the apocalypse has been a container for hope as well as fear. Maybe even now we’ll find some hope inside if we look hard enough.
A Brief History of Apocalypse
Apocalyptic stories have been around at least since biblical times, if not earlier. They show up in many religions, always with the same basic plot: the end is at hand; the cosmic struggle between good and evil (or God and the Devil, as the New Testament has it) is about to culminate in catastrophic chaos, mass extermination, and the end of the world as we know it.
That, however, is only Act I, wherein we wipe out the past and leave a blank cosmic slate in preparation for Act II: a new, infinitely better, perhaps even perfect world that will arise from the ashes of our present one. It’s often forgotten that religious apocalypses, for all their scenes of destruction, are ultimately stories of hope; and indeed, they have brought it to millions who had to believe in a better world a-comin’, because they could see nothing hopeful in this world of pain and sorrow.
That traditional religious kind of apocalypse has also been part and parcel of American political life since, in Common Sense, Tom Paine urged the colonies to revolt by promising, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
When World War II—itself now sometimes called an apocalypse—ushered in the nuclear age, it brought a radical transformation to the idea. Just as novelist Kurt Vonnegut lamented that the threat of nuclear war had robbed us of “plain old death” (each of us dying individually, mourned by those who survived us), the theologically educated lamented the fate of religion’s plain old apocalypse.
After this country’s “victory weapon” obliterated two Japanese cities in August 1945, most Americans sighed with relief that World War II was finally over. Few, however, believed that a permanently better world would arise from the radioactive ashes of that war. In the 1950s, even as the good times rolled economically, America’s nuclear fear created something historically new and ominous—a thoroughly secular image of the apocalypse. That’s the one you’ll get first if you type “define apocalypse” into Google’s search engine: “the complete final destruction of the world.” In other words, one big “whoosh” and then… nothing. Total annihilation. The End.
Apocalypse as utter extinction was a new idea. Surprisingly soon, though, most Americans were (to adapt the famous phrase of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick) learning how to stop worrying and get used to the threat of “the big whoosh.” With the end of the Cold War, concern over a world-ending global nuclear exchange essentially evaporated, even if the nuclear arsenals of that era were left ominously in place.
Meanwhile, another kind of apocalypse was gradually arising: environmental destruction so complete that it, too, would spell the end of all life.
This would prove to be brand new in a different way. It is, as Todd Gitlin has so aptly termed it, history’s first “slow-motion apocalypse.” Climate change, as it came to be called, had been creeping up on us “in fits and starts,” largely unnoticed, for two centuries. Since it was so different from what Gitlin calls “suddenly surging Genesis-style flood” or the familiar “attack out of the blue,” it presented a baffling challenge. After all, the word apocalypse had been around for a couple of thousand years or more without ever being associated in any meaningful way with the word gradual.
The eminent historian of religions Mircea Eliade once speculated that people could grasp nuclear apocalypse because it resembled Act I in humanity’s huge stock of apocalypse myths, where the end comes in a blinding instant—even if Act II wasn’t going to follow. This mythic heritage, he suggested, remains lodged in everyone’s unconscious, and so feels familiar.
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