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Apocalypses Everywhere

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Posted on Feb 27, 2014

mikelehen (CC BY 2.0)

By Ira Chernus, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

As a result, he speculated, our minds stop trying to find the vitalizing images necessary for any healthy life. Every effort to form new mental images only conjures up more fear that the chain of life itself is coming to a dead end. Ultimately, we are left with nothing but “apathy, withdrawal, depression, despair.”

If that’s the deepest psychic lens through which we see the world, however unconsciously, it’s easy to understand why anything and everything can look like more evidence that The End is at hand. No wonder we have a generation of American youth and young adults who take a world filled with apocalyptic images for granted.

Think of it as, in some grim way, a testament to human resiliency. They are learning how to live with the only reality they’ve ever known (and with all the irony we’re capable of, others are learning how to sell them cultural products based on that reality). Naturally, they assume it’s the only reality possible. It’s no surprise that “The Walking Dead,” a zombie apocalypse series, is their favorite TV show, since it reveals (and revels in?) what one TV critic called the “secret life of the post-apocalyptic American teenager.”

Perhaps the only thing that should genuinely surprise us is how many of those young people still manage to break through psychic numbing in search of some way to make a difference in the world.

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Yet even in the political process for change, apocalypses are everywhere. Regardless of the issue, the message is typically some version of “Stop this catastrophe now or we’re doomed!” (An example: Stop the Keystone XL pipeline or it’s “game over”!) A better future is often implied between the lines, but seldom gets much attention because it’s ever harder to imagine such a future, no less believe in it.

No matter how righteous the cause, however, such a single-minded focus on danger and doom subtly reinforces the message of our era of apocalypses everywhere: abandon all hope, ye who live here and now.

Doom and the Politics of Hope

Significant numbers of Americans still hold on to the hope that comes from the original religious version of the apocalypse. Millions of evangelical Christians seem ready to endure the terrors of the destruction of the planet, in a nuclear fashion or otherwise, because it’s the promised gateway to an infinitely better world. Unfortunately, such a “left behind” culture has produced an eerie eagerness to fight both the final (perhaps nuclear) war with evildoers abroad and the ultimate culture war against sinners at home.

This “last stand” mentality, deeply ingrained in (among others) some uncompromising tea partiers, seems irrational in the extreme to outsiders. It makes perfect sense, however, if you are convinced beyond a scriptural doubt that we’re heading for Armageddon.   

A version of plain old apocalypse was once alive on the political left, too, when there was serious talk of a revolution that would tear down the walls and start rebuilding from the ground up. Given the world we face, it may at least be time to bring back the hope for a better future that lay at its heart.

With doom creeping up on us daily in our environmental slow-motion apocalypse, what we may well need now is a slow-motion revolution. Indeed, in the energy sphere it’s already happening. Scientists have shown that renewable sources like sun and wind could provide all the energy humanity needs. Alternative technologies are putting those theories into practice around the globe, just not (yet) on the scale needed to transform all human life.

Perhaps it’s time to make our words and thoughts reflect not just our fears, but the promise of the revolution that is beginning all around us, and that could change in a profound fashion the way we live on (and with) this planet. Suppose we start abiding by this rule: whenever we say the words “Keystone XL,” or talk about any environmental threat, we will follow up with as realistic a vision as we can conjure up of “Act II”: a new world powered solely by renewable sources of energy, free from all carbon-emitting fuels, and inhabited in ingeniously organized new ways. 

In an age in which gloom, doom, and annihilation are everywhere, it’s vital to bring genuine hope—the reality, not just the word—back into political life.

Ira Chernus, a TomDispatch regular, is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of the online “MythicAmerica: Essays.” He blogs at MythicAmerica.us.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars—The Untold Story.

Copyright 2014 Ira Chernus


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