Posted on Feb 27, 2014
By Ira Chernus, TomDispatch
But in a half-century of studying the world’s myths, past and present, he had never found a single one that depicted the end of the world coming slowly. This means we have no unconscious imaginings to pair it with, nor any cultural tropes or traditions that would help us in our struggle to grasp it.
That makes it so much harder for most of us even to imagine an environmentally caused end to life. The very category of “apocalypse” doesn’t seem to apply. Without those apocalyptic images and fears to motivate us, a sense of the urgent action needed to avert such a slowly emerging global catastrophe lessens.
All of that (plus of course the power of the interests arrayed against regulating the fossil fuel industry) might be reason enough to explain the widespread passivity that puts the environmental peril so far down on the American political agenda. But as Dr. Seuss would have said, that is not all! Oh no, that is not all.
Square, Site wide
With so many constantly crying apocalyptic wolf or selling apocalyptic thrills, it’s much harder now to distinguish between genuine threats of extinction and the cheap imitations. The urgency, indeed the very meaning, of apocalypse continues to be watered down in such a way that the word stands in danger of becoming virtually meaningless. As a result, we find ourselves living in an era that constantly reflects premonitions of doom, yet teaches us to look away from the genuine threats of world-ending catastrophe.
Oh, America still worries about the Bomb—but only when it’s in the hands of some “bad” nation. Once that meant Iraq (even if that country, under Saddam Hussein, never had a bomb and in 2003, when the Bush administration invaded, didn’t even have a bomb program). Now, it means Iran—another country without a bomb or any known plan to build one, but with the apocalyptic stare focused on it as if it already had an arsenal of such weapons—and North Korea.
These days, in fact, it’s easy enough to pin the label “apocalyptic peril” on just about any country one loathes, even while ignoring friends, allies, and oneself. We’re used to new apocalyptic threats emerging at a moment’s notice, with little (or no) scrutiny of whether the A-word really applies.
What’s more, the Cold War era fixed a simple equation in American public discourse: bad nation + nuclear weapon = our total destruction. So it’s easy to buy the platitude that Iran must never get a nuclear weapon or it’s curtains. That leaves little pressure on top policymakers and pundits to explain exactly how a few nuclear weapons held by Iran could actually harm Americans.
Meanwhile, there’s little attention paid to the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, right here in the U.S. Indeed, America’s nukes are quite literally impossible to see, hidden as they are underground, under the seas, and under the wraps of “top secret” restrictions. Who’s going to worry about what can’t be seen when so many dangers termed “apocalyptic” seem to be in plain sight?
Environmental perils are among them: melting glaciers and open-water Arctic seas, smog-blinded Chinese cities, increasingly powerful storms, and prolonged droughts. Yet most of the time such perils seem far away and like someone else’s troubles. Even when dangers in nature come close, they generally don’t fit the images in our apocalyptic imagination. Not surprisingly, then, voices proclaiming the inconvenient truth of a slowly emerging apocalypse get lost in the cacophony of apocalypses everywhere. Just one more set of boys crying wolf and so remarkably easy to deny or stir up doubt about.
Death in Life
Why does American culture use the A-word so promiscuously? Perhaps we’ve been living so long under a cloud of doom that every danger now readily takes on the same lethal hue.
Psychiatrist Robert Lifton predicted such a state years ago when he suggested that the nuclear age had put us all in the grips of what he called “psychic numbing” or “death in life.” We can no longer assume that we’ll die Vonnegut’s plain old death and be remembered as part of an endless chain of life. Lifton’s research showed that the link between death and life had become, as he put it, a “broken connection.”
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